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Concussions and Migraines: Is There a Connection?

Posted by Migraine Relief Center on Oct 24, 2014 7:00:00 AM

Despite its growing popularity worldwide, the National Football League (NFL) seems to be in a constant state of turmoil. One of the NFL's most complicated legal challenges is the ongoing lawsuit filed by former and current players who accuse the league of not doing enough to prevent serious concussions and the high incidence of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) that have become an unfortunate staple of the most popular spectator sport in the United States. 8106164718_0825f1ca7d_z

Even if you don't follow American football, chances are that you have learned about the multimillion dollar settlement that the NFL has agreed to paying over the next few years to players who have been affected with TBI. A sad fact in this story is the actuarial data on the likelihood of NFL players who will suffer from Alzheimer's disease and dementia in the future. The estimate is close to 15 percent.
Another fact not often mentioned in the NFL concussions lawsuit is related to migraines. Many football players who suffer concussions on any given Sunday report headaches that last from a few minutes to a couple of hours, and some of them report that the cephalalgia episodes return with a frequency that is similar to that of migraines. The question here is whether there could be a connection between concussions and migraines.

Why Headaches Develop after TBI Episodes

First of all, research studies into the incidence of migraine conditions developing after TBI are in their early stages and no solid conclusions have been drawn yet. The subjects of these studies are football players and soldiers who have been exposed to repeated TBI. It is important to remember that severe head trauma is not the only condition that may cause cerebral complications and chronic cephalalgia; in fact, repeated episodes of people briefly losing consciousness after TBI are more likely to cause gradual and debilitating issues.

Although it can be safely assumed that concussions could put people at greater risk of developing migraines, there is a greater likelihood of preexisting migraine conditions coming to light and worsening after TBI events. Headaches after concussions can be expected, and they may not always occur immediately after the event. The symptoms of post-concussion headaches include:
  • Cranial pain
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo
The symptoms above occur because of the abrupt repositioning of the brain, which disrupts normal cognitive functions. Some of the onset symptoms may be psychogenic, but long-term effects are more likely physiological.

Migraines and TBI Accidents

Physicians and neurosurgeons who specialize in the treatment of TBI almost always expect headaches to develop after an accident. To a certain extent, the absence of headaches could be of greater concern since such a situation would be atypical.

Chronic migraine patients who suffer concussions can certainly expect that these accidents will trigger episodes. In fact, some former NFL players who had occasional headaches prior to their playing careers realized that they actually suffered mild migraine episodes that were exacerbated after a game.

Neurologists treating football players who have been exposed to TBI episodes season after season tend to monitor their patients closely for migraine-like symptoms. After players turn 40 years old, they are not as likely to develop migraines for the first time in their lives; for this reason, retired NFL players who suddenly get sensory auras and vestibular symptoms could be suffering from neurological condition that is far more serious than migraines.

Treatment Options

Soldiers returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq who have been exposed to artillery fire or blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have a TBI profile similar to that of NFL players. Some of these young veterans develop chronic tension headaches that can be effectively treated with prescribed antidepressants and oxygen therapy; this treatment is similar to one of the various techniques used to bring relief to migraine patients during their headache episodes. Still, the connection between TBI and migraines continues to be tenuous at best.

Photo courtesy of Tim Donovan

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Topics: Causes

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