Concussion and the headache patient

In my last post I introduced the concept of concussion and the teenager with headaches. I would like to continue this topic by discussing what is helpful for these kids to help avoid disability and too much missed school.

The first step we recommend is for them to see their PCP or even the ED for a basic concussion exam. CT imaging can be useful with a history of more severe trauma, loss of consciousness or amnesia, or general concerns. The mild concussion diagnosis is then made and the usual recommendations of cognitive rest, physical rest, hydration and analgesia can be given.

For the teen with headaches, recent research using fMRI has shown that there is an element of neurogenic inflammation caused by head trauma. Often when the patients call us after concussion has occurred, we have them use a Medrol dose pack (dexamethasone taper), as way to reduce this inflammation. It can be quite helpful, though we really should try to do some research to quantify the results.   It is something to consider for those patients with baseline headache disorders who are very symptomatic.

So time goes by, the usual concussion recovery measures are done, and usually the teens will be feeling much better within 2 weeks. But for my patients with baseline headache disorders, that is not usually how it goes. So often, when one of my patients has a significant (or even not very significant) head bump, the families can go into panic mode. This is because the teen will often have more and prolonged symptoms than would be expected.

The initial symptoms will subside over time, leaving constant headache, and a variety of other complaints consistent with post-concussion syndrome. Besides headache, these symptoms include sleep disruption, moodiness, vision changes, hearing changes, persistent nausea, dizziness, vertigo, and cognitive difficulties, including inability to attend school and learn.  Since every teen and their responses are different, you need to address the issues at hand.  The symptoms that tend to become prolonged are those related to school functioning- trouble with reading, concentration and focus, and trouble related to the school environment –lights, noise, general overstimulation.

The first thing to address is the headache, and to make sure that they are not overusing analgesia. It is OK to use NSAIDS or Tylenol daily for up to 1 week, but much longer than that puts them at risk for developing medication overuse headaches.  So figuring out what they can do to feel better pain-wise is important.  We often talk about strategic use of medications, such as using naproxen during finals or before standardized testing is a smart way to medicate. They need to ensure excellent hydration and could try a little caffeine to help the pain.

For kids with sleep troubles and/or persistent nausea, I have found that a small dose of hydroxyzine (10-25mg) at bedtime can make a big improvement. Melatonin can be helpful for sleep (no more than 5mg), as well as the usual sleep hygiene recommendations (see an earlier post about lifestyle, All about the migraine part 2-3).

School!

There are many challenges for patients with post-concussion syndrome in returning to school. The school environment, with bright fluorescent lights, loud noise, and general commotion and overstimulation (think auditorium assemblies and basketball games in the gym), make school difficult to tolerate. This is true for teens with baseline headache disorders but worse after concussion.

Then there is the challenge of trying to think, focus and learn, especially frustrating for our teens who are natural ‘strivers’; those teens who are place high demands on their achievement. And it is very hard for these students to accept that they need accommodations and that they need to lower the bar of expectations for themselves, at least during recovery. Parents can also have difficulty with this, but they tend to have the maturity to understand what is needed, and can see the big picture. These kids worry me, as they are the ones at risk for becoming disabled, losing hope of ever feeling better, concerned about what the impact of the concussion will have on their future.  They can be unable to come to terms with the need for accommodations and slowing down, start to give up, and begin the slow decline towards disability.

So how can you help?

  • Support and frequent check-ins with the family can be very helpful to keeping them on track.
  • Work with the school on an appropriate re-entry plan, starting with partial days and frequent breaks during the day for cognitive rest. Some schools have special programs to help facilitate this, and can be really helpful. Asking for flexibility with the plan can make it more successful.
  • Enlist your patient to identify the problem areas of his/her day. Is it lunch in the loud cafeteria? Bright lights in English class, flickering lights in the science lab? Loud and hot environment in the gym/PE?   And after identifying the problems spots, work with the student to advocate for what can help them, such as preferential seating, excused from PE class, shutting off the lights, replacing a flickering light bulb, etc. Being able to make these changes can be very empowering and help them stay functional.
  • Cognitive rest is important and there needs to be emphasis on a gradual return to cognitive functioning and demands. They need reinforcement that overtaxing their brain will not help but only hurt them. There are specific accommodations that are helpful and I will attach a link here. Concussion Accommodations
  • For some teens, concentration and focus can be helped by a small dose of stimulant (methylphenidate or amphetamine), being mindful of other issues such as appetite and sleep.
  • Referral to Physical therapy for head and neck stretching. Referral for cognitive rehabilitative therapy (found with occupational or speech language therapy) can help with organization and functional skills post-concussion.  If you have a dedicated concussion center in your area, they will have these resources.
  • Return to physical activity is a slow process and using activity pacing is very useful. It is a difficult subject to explain but there is a series of You Tube videos done by a teenager with chronic pain that helps teens to figure out the concept. She discusses how to assess what is their current activity tolerance, how to set goals and reach them in a sensible measured way.  I put a link to these videos in the resources. YouTube videos on activity pacing
  • Finally, mood issues, irritability, anxiety and depression are a part of post-concussion syndrome. As the headache improves, this can improve also.  But as the duration of the symptoms continues, it is not uncommon for these kids to really get down and feel hopeless, or get very anxious about ever catching up in school and life. The most important thing is to be vigilant and refer to appropriate psychological clinicians as soon as you notice that the teen is having a difficult time. Explaining that feeling down and anxious can be a part of the post-concussion recovery and getting help them keep on the recovery track.

Awareness about the consequences of concussion is becoming much more mainstream. Less familiar is the effect of concussion is for those kids who already have baseline headache disorders. We owe it to our patients to be aware of the impact and support our families through this tough situation.

The Impact of concussion on teens with headache

There is much evidence and information in the literature about the general effect of concussion on kids and teens.  Most pediatric practices and schools use specific protocols for concussion recovery and these plans generally work well. Unfortunately, for patients with headache, the story of recovery can be quite different.  In this post, I would like to discuss the impact of concussion/mild head trauma on patients with a headache history.

A concussion happens when there is an impact injury to the skull that mildly damages the brain tissue, causing bruising and swelling. Immediate symptoms of a concussion can include a loss of consciousness, confusion, amnesia, nausea, vomiting, headache or dizziness. Some signs of a concussion may not appear for several hours after the injury and may persist for several days or weeks.

Post-concussion symptoms are caused by both physiologic and psychological factors from the effect of brain trauma. Physically, symptoms can be caused by structural damage to the brain or disruption of the neurological messaging system, triggered by impact. Psychological factors can be involved, since many of the symptoms, including headache, dizziness and sleep disruption, can also be attributed to depression, anxiety or PTSD.

Healthy teens generally recover from their concussions within a reasonable amount of time, especially if they follow the usual post-concussion guidelines, instituting cognitive and physical rest for a period of time. Depending on the severity of the injury, recovery can be complete within 3-4 weeks, with a gradual return to function.

Unfortunately, teens with a headache history (migraine, tension-type, new daily persistent headache) have a much more difficult time with their recovery. In fact, migraine is a risk factor for prolonged concussion recovery. Even when the head blow is quite mild, kids with headache tend to be much more symptomatic, diagnosed with a concussion. Whether it is a true ‘concussion’ or not, these patients have significant symptoms consistent with concussion. And they are much more at risk for developing post-concussion syndrome.

Post-concussion syndrome (PCS) is a condition in which the symptoms of a concussion persist for weeks, months or years. Symptoms of PCS include:

  • Headache: recurrent or constant mild to severe headache pain
  • Sleep: disruption, insomnia, daytime fatigue.
  • Mood: anxiety, irritability, depression, confusion
  • Sensory Alterations: blurred or double vision, slurred speech, altered sense of smell or taste, tinnitus or hearing loss, photophobia and phonophobia
  • GI complaints: nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite
  • Balance issues: unsteadiness, lightheadedness, dizziness or vertigo
  • Cognition: forgetfulness, misplacing common items, difficulty concentration and focus, comprehension and reading

After concussion, migraineurs tend to have more frequent and severe migraine episodes. The migraines become more difficult to treat with their usual rescue medications. For patients with TTH, there can also be more severe symptoms, often related to muscle spasms and tightness, especially if there was a whiplash injury. For NDPH patients, their overall baseline headache pain is increased with more frequent headache spikes and other symptoms.

Overall, having a mild head trauma can cause considerable symptoms and even the development of disability in your usually well-functioning teenager with headaches. For primary care providers, awareness of the likelihood of prolonged recovery for these patients is key.  Realistic expectations can be set with the patient and family. PCPs can assist in obtaining accommodations for school and academic demands, as well as supportive therapies to foster recovery. Emotional support is very important, as the results of these types of unexpected injuries can really test the resilience of the any family unit.

It’s important to remember that these types of injuries are not just sports-related.  One of the most prolonged and symptomatic PCS patient in my practice was a teenage girl with migraine who slipped and hit her head on the side of a bathroom sink. She was out of school for months and suffered greatly from this injury, requiring a lot of support and intervention to get back to functioning.  And then she fell and hit her head on the ice the following winter! She made a full recovery but….. oh my goodness.

In my next post, I will talk about care and treatment of the patient with headache and concussion.

 

 

The challenge of taking care of patients with NDPH

I have recently reviewed the basics of New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH) so providers in the community can have a better understanding of this primary headache.  It is often misdiagnosed, mainly due to unfamiliarity.  And now that you have a better understanding, you will be able to recognize it more readily.  One of the most frustrating things for the families is the lack of a firm diagnosis.  Many medications are tried and failed, some appropriate and some inappropriate.  They often express relief after a headache program evaluation, when the providers can explain what is really going on with their child.  The diagnosis is not good news, but uncertainty is often worse.

So what exactly can you do to help a patient with NDPH? Since I know that few medications are useful, I do not routinely recommend one.  I take my cues from the parents and patient, and sometimes they have different opinions.  Oftentimes, the parents are eager to try another med, anything to get this better.  But the teens I deal with really are not interested in doing another medication that ‘will not help me and just make me feel bad’. I generally agree with them.  They are usually interested in participating in research, anything to better understand the NDPH.

In the past 1-2 years, I have been recommending that they try the short-duration lidocaine infusion. The way I look at it, it’s a short intervention that is either going to help or not. But it will not make them worse, which makes it a big plus. And if it is helpful in reducing their symptoms other than headache, that has the potential for improving function and avoiding disability.

Apart from these kinds of initiatives, I just focus on the basics.  That means healthy headache hygiene, which includes adequate hydration, good anti-inflammatory diet, moderate but frequent exercise, and a good night’s sleep.  I reviewed these areas in previous posts (All about the migraine parts 2 & 3). This is even more important for the NDPH patient and most of them are challenged in one or more areas.  They are frequently my patients who don’t drink enough, eat a beige diet, and are persistently nauseous, don’t exercise at all, and have a hard time with sleep. It can be overwhelming to have to tackle many lifestyle issues, so we focus on one at a time, baby steps to improvement.

I like to see them in follow up every 3-4 months to keep them on track. Frequent reminders about any positive progress are also helpful.  When they are discouraged, I refer back to my notes from previous visits, citing an improvement in pain scores or general functioning that I documented 1 year before.  When you are in the weeds with this kind of chronic pain problem, you tend to not notice when things get better incrementally. It can give them encouragement to continue on the path to wellness.

A huge aspect of dealing with teens with NDPH is learning how to cope and manage their chronic pain and stress. I start with recommending counseling with CBT to help them learn pain coping skills. They can be resistant but I can be persistent.   (See previous post: stress and migraine).  There is usually an anxiety overlay in these patients- whether it was there before the headache or developed as a result of having chronic headache.  We can consider starting an SSRI as a way to manage anxiety and also to help with the headache.  I will explain the nervous system pathways for pain and anxiety are right next to each other, and that treating anxiety could very well help the headache.  This is almost always a helpful approach.  It doesn’t ‘cure’ the headache, but promote better coping ability which leads to better functioning, which can lead to NDPH improvement.

I have also tried occipital nerve and trigger point injections in those patients whose headache seems more focal or located in the occipital area. This has the possibility of improving the headache.  I ask that they come for 2 procedures before deciding it does not help. I would say it helps reduce the pain level in about 50% of my patients with NDPH (my guestimate). This is another intervention that could help, and generally does not make the headache worse in the long run.

Understanding and treating NDPH is a work in progress. Redirecting from ineffective and often invasive measures, following patients closely with an open mind and constant support, and emphasizing non-pharmacologic approaches  remain the standard of care until, hopefully, new research brings new insight.

Tension-type headache strategies

I have reviewed factors contributing to tension-type headaches, as well as some preventive strategies.  In this post I will cover appropriate rescue medications, and talk about treatment for underlying anxiety, which often needs to be addressed for kids with tension-type headaches.

Analgesia is a key part of a rescue strategy for TTH. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are the mainstay of headache analgesia. The side effects are GI, such as gastric distress, nausea, ulcer, hematologic, such as bleeding disorder or platelet dysfunction, or related to allergic reaction.  Any of the NSAIDS can be effective in treating a tension-type headache.  Treating a TTH  as soon as possible is the key to success.  I talked about this class of medications more in depth in the blog post “migraine medications to the rescue…analgesia”.  Ibuprofen and naproxen are the most commonly used NSAIDS and are effective for those who can take them.  Some people will also use diclofenac, sulindac and even ketorolac.

For patients who cannot take NSAIDS, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is useful and usually well tolerated, with adult dosing for teens of 650-1000mg q4-6h, weight- appropriate dosing for younger kids. There are many formulations- suspension, chewable tabs, dissolve tabs, regular tablets and extra strength tablets.

Aspirin can also be used, but should be used in a limited fashion due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.  Another Excedrin product, Excedrin Tension Headache, similar to Excedrin migraine, but does not contain aspirin can be used as well.  Each coated tablet contains 500 mg of acetaminophen and 65mg of caffeine. Of course you wouldn’t want to use this in the evening.

For all analgesia, patients should not take them for more than 2-3 days/week to avoid medication overuse headaches.

Other medications: there are a few other medications that can be used for treating other symptoms associated with tension-type headaches. These would include anti-emetics like ondansetron for nausea or an antihistamine, like Benadryl or hydroxyzine, for dizziness. A muscle relaxant could also be a rescue medication, such as tizanidine, but quite apt to make them sleepy.

Complementary rescue strategies:  In addition to the medications we have talked about, there are a number of complementary interventions that can really help resolve a tension-type headache.  In addition, reiki, acupuncture and other complementary therapies can certainly play a role in reducing stress and anxiety, which often trigger tension-type headaches. For some patients, doing these strategies can treat a TTH, and they do not need to take any medication.

  • Aromatherapy: using an essential oil, such as peppermint, lavender, or ginger used topically, gently massaged on the temples or behind the ears
  • Ice/cold (or heat) applied to the forehead or the neck
  • Gentle massage to the neck and occiput or frontal/temples
  • Anything that activates the relaxation response, such as a CBT or biofeedback exercise, or breathing technique, using a relaxation/meditation app, soothing music. My favorite is the Insight Timer app, so many options and free.

Stress and anxiety are frequent triggers of tension-type or stress headaches. Many of us carry our cares and worries in our neck and shoulders. During stressful times, the trapezius and paracervical muscles (which encompass our head) tense up around our heads, squeezing the occipital nerve in particular bilaterally, and triggering headache.  Relieving the pain involves getting these muscles to relax. I refer you to my blog post “stress and migraines” for more information about this and appropriate strategies.

When I have a patient who demonstrates or reports having significant anxiety, I know that this needs to be addressed in order for the teen to start having less frequent TTH. This is not always a welcome message, especially when I encourage them to get some professional help. It is not always easy to bring up, but so necessary.  There are many ways to intervene, including medications, but having a good counselor to talk to and learn CBT skills from is the best intervention, from my point of view. Kids and teens actually do very well with CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy), especially if they do their ‘homework’ and if there is buy-in and support from the family.

Unfortunately, there can be significant barriers to getting into counseling, including lack of local providers, insurance barriers, time constraints and general lack of commitment to the process.  I think finding an appropriate therapist (psychologist, LICSW) is the biggest hurdle.  The PCP can help by knowing the network of child psychology providers in the area. The website, www.psychologytoday.com, has a search feature which can help with that; just enter the zip code, and narrow the search (child/teen, CBT), and a list of local providers comes up.  I have found this to be a very valuable resource, especially when I see patients who are not from my area. I also refer families to their insurance carrier, to find providers who are in network.  I encourage families to understand that finding a therapist is a process, which may involve many phone calls and leaving messages. It can be quite frustrating.

Concerning medications, I have an informal rule that I will not start an anxiolytic medication unless there is counseling set up or actively being pursued.  I think it is important to send the message that there is work to be done to manage anxiety, and the more work the patient is willing to do, the less medication (and side effects) is needed.  Also SSRI/SNRI medications are not without risk, including the black box warning of suicidality in the young and teenage population.

There are definitely times when both counseling and medication is needed, but in my opinion, the therapy is most important. Why? Because therapy/CBT can help our young patients develop the skills and resilience to face the challenges of life. Kids and teens need to develop their inner resources to deal with their quickly changing environments, without becoming overwhelmed or despondent, or falling into other unhealthy coping strategies, such as addiction. As providers, we owe it to them to steer in the right direction as best we can, to speak up when we think psychological help is needed, and to support our families in their healing journeys.

Off the soapbox now……………

My next posts will be about another primary headache, new daily persistent headache (NDPH), a very challenging headache diagnosis. Stay tuned………

 

 

 

Tension-type headache treatments

So you have diagnosed your teenaged patient with tension-type headaches, what are the next steps to prevent and treat them? The same questions apply to TTH as to migraine: Does this patient need a preventive or daily medication? What is the rescue plan? And even more importantly, what about the lifestyle factors that can trigger TTH?

Again, deciding on a preventive or daily medication depends on how much impact the TTHs are having on your teen patient’s life. Anything more than once per week deserves this conversation. And your choices for medication can be different than for migraine. When you think about the main causes for TTH, you think about muscular tension which can lead to muscle spasm and occipital neuralgia, and stress and anxiety.

For muscle tightness and/or spasm:  Oftentimes patient with TTH will awaken with a stiff neck and back or headache. Muscle relaxants given at bedtime can reduce neck tightness overnight, leading to less tension overall.  The most typical muscle relaxant we use is tizanidine (Zanaflex), an alpha2-adrenergic agonist, used for muscle spasticity. Usual dosage is 2-4 mg at bedtime. Main side effects are drowsiness, dry mouth, and weakness. It is used with caution for patient with impaired renal function and not advised for patients with impaired hepatic function.  If your patient has difficulty with sleep, tizanidine can also help with this. Cyclobenzaprine (Flexiril) is also a musculoskeletal relaxant, with a similar side effect profile and precautions. This medication is not recommended to be used for more than 2-3 weeks, and we do not generally use it.  Another option is diazepam (Valium), a benzodiazepine, but we almost never use it due to the risk of dependence and CNS depression. It is not a good choice.

What else can be done besides medications for tight muscles in the neck and upper back? The many different options of body work, such as massage, cranial sacral massage, chiropractic, yoga and Physical Therapy are very useful. I especially like PT, as there is a component and need for self-care required.  Sending your patient for PT for head and neck stretching and strengthening is a very useful therapeutic option.  PT is usually easy to find locally, though does require co-pay every time you go.  The patient needs to do their home exercise program as well for it to be effective.

A few years ago I recognized that for some families, doing PT was difficult- either because of the co-pay or the time commitment/hours of operation of the PT center. It just wasn’t happening and it needed to. With my yoga teacher, I developed a home head and neck stretching program to supplement or replace PT (for patients who were not going anyway).  I taught the exercises in the office, gave the family written instructions and a firm ball to use.  We collected data in follow up and the results were great.  We surveyed 43 patients, 36 of whom did the exercises at least once/week or more.  Results revealed that 78% had reduced muscle tension, 22% had reduced headache and 30% just felt better.  The more the kids actually did the exercises, the more benefit they reported.   I demonstrate the exercises,  give out instructions and balls regularly for those who would benefit, and for those who actually do the exercises, it is very helpful. The balls we used are called ‘Pinky’ balls, firm like a lacrosse ball, inexpensive, and can be found easily.  Here’s a link to the instructions:  Pinky ball Head and Neck exercises

For TTH with occipital neuralgia: Of all the previously discussed medications useful for headache, Gabapentin (Neurontin) is the one I use most often.  It is an anticonvulsant and is quite effective in dealing with neuropathic pain anywhere in the body. So it makes sense that it would help with occipital neuralgia. Gabapentin does cause sedation and mental clouding, may lead to weight gain. Dosing is at bedtime to start, though depending on toleration, it can be given up to TID. At most I will use BID dosing (bigger dose at bedtime), as that midday dose is often missed. It comes in capsule form, smallest dosing is 100mg, though it does come as a liquid, helpful for younger children. Pregabalin (Lyrica) can be used as well, but there is abuse potential so it is controlled substance. Generally the insurance companies require failure with gabapentin before approving Lyrica. It can be hard to obtain and I do not use it often.

In a specialty headache or pain program, there is the option of occipital nerve and trigger point injections, done with local anesthetic (lidocaine and bupivacaine +/- steroids). IN TTH, the occipital nerve may be inflamed. Trigger points (areas within muscles that are very irritable) will contribute to tension-type headaches and myofascial pain.  The areas around the greater occipital nerve, as well as any trigger points in the upper cervical, trapezius muscles are infiltrated with local anesthetic.  Initially, patients feel ‘heavy-headed’ or numb, which passes by the next day or so.  The anesthetic medication blocks pain receptors within the nerves surrounding the muscle, thus reducing the pain signals sent to the brain.  Your patient may feel immediate relief of pain, and then (hopefully) a reduction in neuralgia and headache.   This procedure is done in a series of 3, spaced 4-8 weeks apart.  I usually encourage them to try it at least twice to evaluate whether it is helpful. Some patients have significant improvement with this procedure; some have no benefit at all.  It is generally well tolerated.

I am actually amazed at how well the teens do with this procedure. They are in my office with a parent, we do a breathing exercise throughout the procedure, and only do as many injections as they can tolerate. Even my most needle-phobic kids can do it, mainly because they cannot see what I am doing and are distracted by the breathing exercise. After we complete the injections, I insist they go to the ‘spa room’, lay down on our Biomat (like a large heating pad) in dim lighting for 15-20 minutes with relaxing ambient sounds and aromatherapy, and drink a Gatorade. Many fall asleep and are very relaxed when they leave. I know we are very lucky to be able to offer this kind of experience.  I think it actually increases the therapeutic benefit of the procedure.

In my next post, I’ll talk about appropriate rescue medications and treatment for underlying anxiety, which often needs to be addressed for kids with tension-type headaches.

Talking about Tension-type headaches

Starting this month, I am going to move on from migraine and start to review another primary headache, tension-type headache (TTH), commonly seen in children and teens. In earlier blog posts I discussed lifestyle factors for good headache hygiene.  All of those recommendations can be applied to any headache type, including TTH, and I refer you to those earlier posts for specific recommendations.

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache, but generally less disabling than migraine or some other headaches. The pain can be mild to moderate, often described as being like a band around the head, pressure, dull and aching, and involving both sides of the head. Tension-type headaches usually come on slowly and can sometimes last for days. The headache is caused by muscle tension in the scalp, neck and upper back which tightens the blood vessels and causes pain. There is also irritation and changes in the blood vessels that make the pain feel worse and more severe than you would expect from muscle tension.

Some teens also have neck stiffness and signs of occipital neuralgia, which is described as sharp, shooting or burning pain which travels from the occiput to frontalis. The tight muscles squeeze the occipital nerve, leading to neuralgia. The neuralgic pain can be felt along the pathway of the occipital nerve and can be felt even behind the eyes. Occipital neuralgia has been described to me as a sudden and severe electric shock-like pain, brief, and can knock you off your feet.  The episodes of neuralgia can be infrequent or several times/day.  The pathophysiology of TTH is not completely clear; nociceptive input from cranial and cervical myofascial components will trigger TTH and if this noxious input is sustained, the pattern becomes chronic.  As a result, frequent TTH with/without neuralgia can lead to central sensitization, scalp allodynia, and chronic tension-type headache.

Common triggers are similar to migraine and include anxiety, depression, life and school stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, dehydration, lack of exercise and movement, poor posture, neck and upper back muscle spasms and strains, and general illness. Along with pain, kids with TTH can experience a few other symptoms such as lightheadedness or dizziness, mild nausea and fatigue. They do not usually have the array of associated symptoms that someone with migraine would experience. And while the pain is usually not as severe, TTH can also be debilitating when it becomes chronic, when there is occipital neuralgia, or when the underlying issues are not addressed.

Significant contributing factors are stress and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Oftentimes, headache is the major presenting symptom, and on further investigation, environmental stress (home, school, peer bullying) and mental health challenges are revealed, either at the PCP or frequently at the school nurse’s office.  Getting to the bottom of these issues and intervening can lead to an improvement in TTH.

Learning to manage stress is the key to preventing or minimizing the suffering from TTH. When you think about your stress, where do you usually feel it in your body? Some people feel it in their gut- nausea, butterflies, GERD, abdominal pain, diarrhea/irritable bowel. Some people get short of breath, hyperventilate, feel chest tightness or even trigger an asthma or panic attack. Maybe you have emotional eating or stop eating altogether. For many people, it is in the muscles- muscle tightness or even muscle spasm.  This tightness can be in the back, such as low back pain in adults, or for many, in the upper back and neck, which can lead to headache.

So it makes sense to understand how we respond to stress and also how to decrease the habitual physical reactions to stress. We all can experience these reactions and our bodies respond instinctually ‘the way it always does’.  When stress is experienced in the musculoskeletal system and causes pain, this is often described as muscle memory. Say you have a minor low back injury and have a back spasm; the next time you feel stressed, you may respond by having a back spasm/pain.  Over time, this area of your body has become a point of weakness and susceptible to having a stress reaction. It happens differently for everybody.  This is often what happens with TTH: there is stress, then upper back and neck muscles get tight, squeeze around the skull and trigger headache.  What is important is making the connection, recognizing what stress does in our bodies, and then figuring out what to do to decrease the automatic response.  You can help your patients figure this out.

If you have diagnosed your patient with tension-type headaches, the next steps include how to prevent and treat them. The same questions apply to TTH as to migraine: Does this patient need a preventive or daily medication? What is the rescue plan? And even more importantly, what about the lifestyle factors that can trigger TTH? The questions are the same, sometimes the interventions are the same but there are some differences. We will cover this topic in my next post.