Introducing……… New Daily Persistent Headache

In this post, I am going to introduce you to another primary headache, new daily persistent headache (NDPH). This primary headache is not often seen in primary care, but I think our clinic population has about 25% of teens with this diagnosis.  There’s a good reason why a referral to a specialty headache program is important for these patients.

Imagine being a 13 year-old girl, just getting over a viral illness, and suddenly finding yourself with a constant, unremitting headache. At first you and your family think, it will go away soon, probably related to having just been sick.  But it doesn’t go away………….. for months or years.  That’s NDPH.

NDPH is an unrelenting headache that develops rapidly, with the person often knowing the exact day when it began, and having a continuous headache from that day. It often happens in a person with no past history of headaches. It neither a migraine or tension-type headache, but begins as a new headache. This is a very difficult headache for patients and families as it often does not respond to treatment.  It is called Persistent because the average length of this headache can be up to 3 years, or more. Incidence is reported at 2-4% of patients with headache, but this is most likely underreported, as the headache is often unrecognized for what it really is. It is seen in both adults and adolescents, but more frequently in teens.

NDPH is characterized by:

  • appearing without warning;
  • often following a viral illness, several concussions, or for no reason at all;
  • Constant headache that lasts for more than 3 months from onset (within 3 days);
  • At least 2 of these: felt on both sides of the head; feel pressing or squeezing (not pulsing); mild to moderate pain; not worsened by routine physical activity;
  • Both of these: light or sound sensitivity or mild nausea AND NOT moderate or severe nausea/vomiting;
  • All other reasons have been investigated and ruled out.

For some patients, there can be migraine-like symptoms, such as light and sound sensitivity, and nausea. For some, there can be tension-type headache symptoms, such as mild-moderate pain, non-throbbing on both sides of the head. NDPH does not respond to the usual headache prevention medications or the usual rescue treatments and medications.  Unfortunately, many patients can become disabled with NDPH.

So this teenager comes into your office, with the complaint of constant headache for the past few weeks. What do you do? First you rule out a secondary reason for headache, perhaps do some labwork (CBC, chemistry, B12, thyroid, celiac, etc), brain MRI, thorough patient and family history and physical, making sure there’s nothing else going on. The diagnosis of NDPH is a diagnosis of exclusion.

Once the secondary generators have been ruled out, you think about the primary headaches. Migraine and tension-type headaches generally start as episodic, not constant or chronic. So even with a strong family history of migraine, that’s probably not what this is.

So it’s a constant headache, moderate in pain (though with some spikes of more severe pain), probably associated with environmental sensitivities and nausea. It’s a terrible diagnosis. You have to tell the family that the usual headache treatments and medications don’t work well, that there is really no cure except time and adherence to a multidisciplinary approach to care and wellness.

And then you refer them to a specialty pediatric headache program because the family and you will need all the support you can get. In the meantime, you help them work on lifestyle- good sleep, hydration, healthy diet, and staying active.

As you can imagine, this is quite difficult. It is especially hard when there really doesn’t seem to be a reason (virus, too many concussions). In my experience, when there does not seem to be an identifiable cause for the NDPH, these particular families have a VERY hard time coming to acceptance and embracing the multidisciplinary approach. They are always ‘searching for a reason’, which can often send them down some unhealthy and unhelpful rabbit holes. That’s why you send them to a pediatric headache center, where this diagnosis is well known.

The key here is early identification of NDPH, as soon as you suspect it is not a standard primary headache. Delays in diagnosis often lead to unnecessary medication and treatment trials, increased frustration and desperation on the part of the family, and an increased level of disability for the patient.  This is a real problem without an easy answer.

I know from personal experience that partnering with the family, through all the ups and downs, makes a difference in outcomes and level of disability. You stick with them, gain their trust, and offer lots of support.  One thing I will tell my patients in particular is that ‘I believe that their headache will resolve someday. I don’t have a crystal ball to say when, but I believe they will get better. And I have seen many patients who really did get better’.  This can help give them hope.

Hope is so important and powerful. I often refer to my colleagues and myself as chief cheerleaders for these families. They’ll say ‘we know there’s not much out there that can help, but we come in anyway, so you can give us hope’.   Recovery is possible with hope.

I will further review options for dealing with the patient with NDPH in my next post.

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