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New therapy reduces veteran headaches after brain injury

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Headache also shown to have positive impact on PTSD symptoms

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The first therapy to be developed specifically for post-traumatic headaches significantly reduced related disability in veterans following a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a study has revealed. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Headache (CBTH) was also shown to reduce co-occurring symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comparably to a gold-standard PTSD treatment.

Furthermore, the therapy was shown to be appealing to patients with low drop-out rates, and is easy for therapists to learn and deliver, increasing its potential to be widely used and to improve the lives of servicemen and women and veterans globally. 

CBTH, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy concepts to reduce headache disability and improve mood, includes key components such as relaxation, setting goals for activities patients want to resume, and planning for those situations.

“We are excited by this development in the treatment of post-traumatic headache, which along with TBI is poorly understood and for which treatment options are so limited,” said Dr Don McGeary, associate professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio). 

“To find the first major treatment success for post-traumatic headache, which is arguably the most debilitating symptom of TBI, and that the treatment also significantly reduces co-morbid PTSD symptoms, is a major breakthrough.”

Both TBI and PTSD are prevalent in post-9/11 military conflicts, and the two conditions commonly occur together. 

Post-traumatic headaches, or headaches that develop or worsen following a head or neck injury, become chronic and debilitating in a large percentage of those who experience a TBI such as a concussion, inhibiting their ability to engage in the activities of daily life. 

When PTSD is co-occurring, it can worsen the headaches and make them more difficult to treat.

Effective treatments exist for PTSD but not for post-traumatic headache, which along with TBI, scientists are still working to understand. 

Migraine medications commonly used to alleviate the headache pain do not relieve related disability. They also often have unwanted side effects, and their overuse can worsen headaches.

In the study, Dr McGeary and his team developed CBTH by modifying a psychotherapy for migraine headaches. They evaluated its efficacy with co-occurring post-traumatic headache and PTSD symptoms.

The study was conducted at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System. 

Participants had clinically significant PTSD symptoms and headaches persisting more than three months following a TBI. They were randomly assigned to receive either CBTH, a leading PTSD treatment called Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), or the usual care provided at the VA Polytrauma Center.

At the end of treatment, researchers found that, compared to usual care, those receiving CBTH reported significant reductions in disability and in negative impact on function and quality of daily life. 

They also showed improvement in PTSD symptoms comparable to the group that received CPT. All of these treatment gains were maintained six months after treatment completion.

CPT, on the other hand, led to significant and lasting improvements in PTSD symptoms, but on its own did not improve headache disability. 

“This was a surprise,” said Dr McGeary. 

“If theories about PTSD driving post-traumatic headache are correct, you’d expect CPT to help both PTSD and headache. Our findings call that into question.”

Interestingly, CBTH did not reduce headache intensity or frequency compared to usual care. 

Dr McGeary said its dramatic reductions on negative life impact are likely due to its building patients’ confidence that they could control or manage their headaches, a concept known as “self-efficacy.” 

That sense of control was key to helping patients “get their lives back,” he said.

“If you can improve a person’s belief that they can control their headache, they function better,” Dr McGeary said. 

“That’s because, when dealing with a long-term, disabling pain condition, people make decisions about whether they’re going to actively engage in any kind of activity, especially if the activity exacerbates the pain condition. 

“They make those decisions based on their perceptions of their ability to handle their pain.”

In comparison to CPT, CBTH requires fewer and shorter therapy sessions—typically eight sessions of 30-45 minutes each. CPT typically involves 12 sessions lasting 60-90 minutes each.

CBTH requires only two hours to train clinicians to deliver the therapy, compared to CPT, a complex treatment that requires significant training and acquired skill. 

The research team now hope to broaden their study to be as representative as possible. 

Dr McGeary said: “We need more women, more racial and ethnic diversity, veterans as well as active military of different branches, with varying comorbidities, in different geographic regions attached to different hospitals and medical systems because we’re comparing to usual care.”

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