Derek's vehicle was hit by an IED, but despite his injuries, he continued to serve. Later, he began to notice physical problems as well as the symptoms of PTSD and even thoughts of harming himself. Reaching out to VA helped him to get on his feet again and start living his life more fully.
What are headaches?
Are you bothered by sharp pain or throbbing discomfort in your head? Do you sometimes notice it gets worse in times of stress? Does it seem to occur every day? Headaches—pain or discomfort in the head or scalp—can make it difficult to focus or enjoy many aspects of your life. Headaches can also affect your mood, making you irritable, distracted, or impatient.
Headaches can be triggered by increased tension in the muscles in your head and in your neck. Sometimes, headaches are due to tightening of the veins and arteries in your head. Such things as stress, sinus infections, or head injuries can also contribute to the development of headaches.
Most people have an occasional headache that goes away after a short time, and these can happen for a number of different reasons. There are several common types of headaches:
- Tension headaches, which are frequently caused by stress
- Cluster headaches, which usually occur on only one side of your head and may also cause a watery eye and nasal congestion on that side
- Migraine headaches, which may be triggered by bright lights or certain foods or smells, and may make you feel sick to your stomach
“I’d had headaches before, but they always got better with time or a few aspirin. The headache I got after being that close to an explosion was something different altogether—something that stayed with me for a while.”
Frequent or recurring headaches can be signs of ongoing tension or other medical issues. Veterans who have frequent headaches may be experiencing them because of stress or emotional strain, such as experiences in combat, dealing with a job change or family situation, or because of difficult events in the past. Overuse of painkillers, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, overwork, poor sleep, or irregular meals may also cause severe headaches.
Some Veterans may have headaches due to whiplash or traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI is the result of injury to the brain when the head is hit or shaken. Veterans are at risk for TBI if they were involved in a:
- Blast or explosion
- Vehicular accident or crash
- Fragment wound above the shoulder
- Blow to the head from a sporting event, fight, or other injury
If I’m experiencing headaches, what can I do about it right away?
- Try to rest with your eyes closed and head supported
- Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or taking a warm shower
- Over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin—taken as directed—may help temporarily, although they can lead to rebound headaches if taken over a long period of time
“If your head is hurting because of something that happened over there, you owe it to yourself to get checked out for TBI. The sooner you know, the sooner you can start dealing with it.”
Making some simple changes in your lifestyle can also help you avoid or reduce headaches.
- Get enough sleep and try to go to bed and get up at the same times every day
- Eat regularly, without skipping meals, and choose healthy foods without large amounts of salt or caffeine
- Maintain good posture, especially if you work at a desk or frequently use the phone
- Keep hydrated by drinking water throughout the day
Take the next step – Make the connection.
Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for headaches. If headaches are affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
- Your family doctor: Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center: VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans
- A spiritual or religious advisor
Explore these resources for more information about headaches in Veterans.
Learn more about the possible associations between headaches and other issues such as stress and anxiety, depression, effects of traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and trouble sleeping.
Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center
This website provides Veterans, Service members, and their families with TBI educational materials and information on care coordination and research.
Outreach Center for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Support
The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) has established an Outreach Center to provide Psychological Health and TBI resources to Veterans and others. The Center can provide personalized information about symptoms and recommend resources in your area.
If you are a combat Veteran or experienced any sexual trauma during your military service, bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist—many of whom are Veterans themselves—for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA.
VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Frequent headaches could be a sign of other health conditions that need attention. This website will allow you to search for VA programs located near you. If you are eligible to receive care through the Veterans Health Administration, you can enroll in one of VA’s treatment programs.