Headaches and migraine episodes are common for those with PTSD. However, treatments for both conditions can reduce the frequency and severity of these headaches.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that affects roughly 6.8% of adults and 5% of adolescents in their lifetime. PTSD can develop after someone is exposed to an extremely stressful or traumatic event, such as assault, abuse, neglect, or other traumatic situations.

PTSD can cause a wide range of potentially debilitating mental and physical symptoms, such as changes in mood, cognition, behavior, and more. Research suggests that roughly 54% of people with PTSD also experience persistent headaches and that many people with PTSD also live with chronic migraine episodes.

Below, we’ll explore the link between PTSD and headaches, including how long this symptom might last and when to reach out to a doctor for treatment.

Because post-traumatic stress disorder causes stress-related symptoms, tension-type headaches and migraine are most common in PTSD.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of stress-related headaches. Some of the symptoms of a tension headache can include:

  • mild or moderate dull head pain
  • forehead pressure and tenderness
  • scalp, neck, or shoulder pain or tenderness
  • fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating

While tension headaches are typically only mildly or moderately painful, migraine episodes can be debilitating. Symptoms of a migraine episode may include:

  • moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing head pain
  • intense pain on one or both sides of the head
  • light or sound sensitivity
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • additional symptoms before and after the migraine

Another type of headache, called post-traumatic headache (PTH), can develop after a traumatic brain injury. Although people can have both PTH and PTSD at the same time, these are considered two separate conditions.

What causes PTSD headaches?

One of the reasons that people with PTSD may experience more frequent headaches is because of the way that our bodies react to stress.

When we’re stressed or anxious, the muscles in our shoulder, neck, and scalp tend to contract, which can lead to tension headaches. Chronic stress can also lead to functional and structural changes in the brain, which can increase the risk of migraine.

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Research studies on PTSD headaches are fairly limited, but one study on PTSD and headaches found that 54.5% of participants reported experiencing persistent headaches. Other studies on the subject show a similar relationship between headaches and PTSD.

In an earlier 2016 study, researchers explored the link between PTSD and headache and migraine frequency in Hurricane Katrina survivors.

Results of the study found that PTSD symptoms, especially intrusive symptoms, were associated with an increase in headaches or migraine episodes. In fact, each additional point on the intrusive symptom scale led to a 55% increased risk of experiencing headaches or migraine.

Another study published in 2021 analyzed the relationship between post-traumatic stress symptoms, brain structure, and chronic headaches in adolescents. According to the study results, post-traumatic stress symptoms and brain changes due to PTSD were associated with increased headache frequency.

Research also suggests that people who have chronic headaches are also more likely to have mental health conditions like PTSD.

In a 2022 study from Japan, researchers analyzed the association between migraine and psychiatric conditions, including PTSD. Results of the study showed that migraine was associated with an increased risk of PTSD ― with the condition affecting roughly 7.7% of people with migraine.

Generally, treatment approaches for PTSD headaches involve pain management and addressing the underlying cause:

  • Pain management: Most people see relief from mild to moderate headache pain with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Muscle relaxers and scalp massage may also be helpful for tension headaches. But if these medications don’t work, there are several prescription medications that can help prevent or treat severe headaches.
  • Underlying cause: PTSD symptoms can interfere with your ability to function in your day-to-day life, but treatment can help reduce or manage these symptoms. Both medication and therapy are effective treatment options to help reduce PTSD symptoms, especially when used together.

If you have PTSD and have been experiencing frequent, persistent, or chronic headaches, reach out to your doctor to discuss your treatment options.

How long do PTSD headaches last?

Different headaches can last for different amounts of time, depending on the severity and type of the headache.

Most tension-type headaches will resolve within a few hours, although more severe tension headaches can last for days. Similarly, migraine headaches ― including the attack and the symptoms that can happen before and after ― can last for a few hours to a few days.

Treatment with the right medications can help reduce the severity of PTSD headaches and shorten them.

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Research on the relationship between PTSD and headaches suggests that both conditions go hand-in-hand. All types of stress ― daily life stressors, major stressful life events, and PTSD ― can cause frequent headaches. But people with chronic migraine episodes often have higher rates of PTSD than the general population.

If you’ve been experiencing chronic headaches as a symptom of your PTSD, treatment can help get relieve your pain. Consider speaking with a doctor or therapist about what treatment options are available to you.