Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are Returning with Headache Disorders

As military veterans return from multiple tours in the Middle East, many are coming home with more than they bargained for. Research has shown that headaches often occur in tandem with conditions that commonly affect war veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and depression. With more than 1.6 million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, this relationship has been attracting increased public scrutiny and concern.

In a study published in the June 2008 edition of the journal Headache, U.S. soldiers were screen with 90 days of returning from a one-year combat tour in Iraq. Of these soldiers, 19% were found to have migraine, with an additional 17% suspected of having migraine. By comparison, the prevalence of migraine in the general population is approximately 10%.

A 2009 study from the Veterans Affairs Center of Excellence for Stress and Mental Health in La Jolla, Calif., found that both migraine and tension-type headache were significantly associated with PTSD and combat-related injury. Of the 308 veterans who visited the clinic for health services during the study, about 40% reported migraine and/or tension-type headache as a current problem.

“Veterans with PTSD were four times more likely to report current headache than veterans without PTSD symptoms,” says study lead Niloofar Afari, PhD, director of clinical affairs at the center. “Veterans with both migraine and tension-type headache had significantly higher rates of PTSD than those who had migraine or tension-type headache alone.”

The study also found that veterans with combat injuries unrelated to TBI were more than twice as likely to report a headache. It did not, however, find a significant increase in headaches in veterans with TBI, which runs contrary to other studies. Dr. Afari speculates that this may be because so few subjects reported having TBI without combat injury.

Another surprising find was that veterans with substance abuse problems were only half as likely to report having headaches, possibly because they are already self-medicating, Dr. Afari says.

These studies, like others that have preceded them, “speak very strongly to the need to assess and treat all the different problems that veterans are experiencing,” Dr. Afari says. “Veterans often come in to the VA and get tracked for one issue, like PTSD, when they would benefit from a more comprehensive assessment for both mental health and physical health consequences of combat.”

It also speaks to the need for better resources to help soldiers cope with headaches and other common post-combat issues. That’s why the National Headache Foundation (NHF) launched the War Veterans Health Resource Initiative. This site provides military men and women with a comprehensive list of resources for coping with neurological trauma—including headache and migraine—and other aspects of post-deployment life. Veterans can access links to information on a wide variety of topics, including military discounts, medical experts, treatment  facilities, physical therapy, mental health counseling, job training, and disability  claims assistance. There are also online forums where they can share stories and discuss experiences.

“People need to understand that migraine is not just a bad headache. It is a neurobiological disease that often comes with severe nausea, blinding light sensitivity, extreme noise sensitivity, vertigo, and visual aura that makes handling weapons and heavy equipment nearly impossible,” says Mar Husid, MD, director of the Walton Headache Center at Walton Rehabilitation Health System in Augusta, Ga. “It is a disease that can take a physically fit and mentally tough young soldier and remove him or her from active duty. The NHF site is going to be useful to my patients and their families in dealing with this challenge.”

Dr. Afari’s study received the 2011 Seymour Diamond Lectureship Award for being the most significant paper in the field of headache or pain published in the last year.

Traumatic Brain Injury Survival Guide

The Traumatic Brain Injury Survival Guide site is very unconventional in that it is an online book focused specifically on TBI by Dr. Glen Johnson, a Clinical Neuropsychologist and Clinical Director of the Neuro-Recovery Head Injury Program in Traverse City, MI. Even the though the site, literally reads like a book and has links to chapters, the information is given very concisely in laymen’s terms and information easily resonates with sufferers as they read.


Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC)

The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) serves active duty military, their dependents and veterans with traumatic brain injury through state-of-the-art medical care, innovative clinical research initiatives and educational programs. Site is a collaboration of the Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs health care system and funded through the Department of Defense.


  • Under the Service Members and Veterans tab: Resources for Living with TBI, Care Coordination and Recovery and Rehabilitation
  • Under the Families and Friends tab: Referrals, Family Care Giver Curriculum, and list DoD and VA Health Insurers
  • Under the Research tab: DVBI conducts, collaborates and advances research, both single and multi-center studies with other governmental and civilian organizations. DVBIC is engaged in cooperative research, education, and prevention programs with affiliated universities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry parties.
  • Under the Providers tab: Interactive map to DVBIC locations, Telehealth resources and Strategies for Symptom Management was formed to help Americans in the military stay informed and connected and now has become the largest military and veteran membership organization – 10 million members. The site connects service members, military families and veterans to all of the benefits of service – government benefits, scholarships, discounts, lifelong friends, mentors etc. It provides headline news and technology updates and user-generated videos. More specifically, has a TBI overview section that focuses on resources for soldiers suffering from head trauma:

Brain Injury Resource Center

Brain Injury Resource Center is the place to find links to information on brain injury. While it was designed primarily for traumatic brain injury it contains information relevant to many types of brain injuries. The site is designed to empower you to indentify services and resources specific to your particular needs and objectives and help you formulate, evaluate and implement, goal-directed action plans.

The site was created by a group of professionals and advocates who have joined forces to provide educational resources and case management assistance to individuals with TBI, their loved ones and professionals serving them.


  • Brain injury introduction, which promotes patient education and specifies all different types of injuries, their symptoms, commonly used medical terms, and a check list of common impairments due to brain injury.
  • Brain injury costs and facts according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Links to brain injury organizations, support groups, chat groups, alliances etc.

The most valuable part of the site is that they will actually get you in contact with a “Case Manger” to interface with your family, doctor, employer, school, lawyer and other significant supports so that you can focus on healing. They will collect and analyze and disseminate information on the nature of TBI, its consequences and effects on the family. They provide for a fee:

  • Individual and Family Consultations
  • Legal Case Management
  • Telephone Consultations
  • Workshops for survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries and families