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What are headaches?

Are you bothered by sharp pain or throbbing discomfort in your head? Do your headaches get worse in times of stress? Do your headaches 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.

“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.”

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 one side of your head and may also cause a watery eye and nasal congestion on that same side
  • Migraine headaches, which may be triggered by bright lights or certain foods or smells and make you feel nauseated

Frequent or recurring headaches can be signs of ongoing tension, increasing stress, or other medical issues. Veterans who have headaches may be experiencing them because of stress or emotional strain, such as specific experiences in the military, a job change, or challenging family situations. 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 a 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
  • Fall
  • 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 and releasing the tension in your back, neck, and shoulders.
  • Use an ice pack on the painful area of your head.
  • Ask someone to rub your neck and back, or get a massage.
  • Use an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin — only as directed and once in a while. Some pain relievers can actually make headaches worse, particularly if used too often. These are called "rebound headaches."

Making some simple changes in your lifestyle can also help you avoid or reduce headaches.

  • Get enough sleep and try to follow a regular sleep schedule.
  • 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.
  • Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated.

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 doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does. If you feel comfortable enough with your physician, he or she may be able to help you find tools to manage headaches even without direct experience with Veterans.
  • 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 adviser

Explore these resources for more information about Veterans experiencing headaches.

Learn about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to headaches, such as stress and anxiety, depression, effects of traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and trouble sleeping.

Polytrauma/TBI System of Care
The VA Polytrauma System of Care provides comprehensive care and tailored rehabilitation for Veterans and returning Service members with TBI and other injuries to more than one physical region or organ system of the body.
www.polytrauma.va.gov/index.asp

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.
www.dvbic.org

Outreach Center for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Support
The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury has established an Outreach Center to provide resources to Veterans and others. The Center can provide personalized information about symptoms and recommend resources in your area.
www.dcoe.mil/Families/Help.aspx

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can 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. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter_flsh.asp

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Headaches may be related to other health conditions that need attention. VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isflash=1