What are headaches?
Are you bothered by sharp pain or throbbing discomfort in your head? Do your headaches get worse in times of stress? Do your headaches occur every day? Headaches — pain or discomfort in the head or scalp — can make it difficult to focus or enjoy many aspects of your life. Headaches can also affect your mood, making you irritable, distracted, or impatient.
Headaches can be triggered by increased tension in the muscles in your head and in your neck. Sometimes headaches are due to tightening of the veins and arteries in your head. Such things as stress, sinus infections, or head injuries can also contribute to the development of headaches.
Most people have an occasional headache that goes away after a short time, and these can happen for a number of different reasons. There are several common types of headaches:
- Tension headaches, which are frequently caused by stress
- Cluster headaches, which usually occur on one side of your head and may also cause a watery eye and nasal congestion on that same side
- Migraine headaches, which may be triggered by bright lights or certain foods or smells and make you feel nauseated
Frequent or recurring headaches can be signs of ongoing tension, increasing stress, or other medical issues. Veterans who have headaches may be experiencing them because of stress or emotional strain, such as specific experiences in the military, a job change, or challenging family situations. Overuse of painkillers, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, overwork, poor sleep, or irregular meals may also cause severe headaches.
“I’d had headaches before, but they always got better with time or a few aspirin. The headache I got after being that close to an explosion was something different altogether — something that stayed with me for a while.”
Some Veterans may have headaches due to whiplash or a traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI is the result of injury to the brain when the head is hit or shaken. Veterans are at risk for TBI if they were involved in a:
- Blast or explosion
- Vehicular accident or crash
- Fragment wound above the shoulder
- Blow to the head from a sporting event, fight, or other injury
If I’m experiencing headaches, what can I do about it right away?
- Try to rest with your eyes closed and head supported.
- Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or taking a warm shower and releasing the tension in your back, neck, and shoulders.
- Use an ice pack on the painful area of your head.
- Ask someone to rub your neck and back, or get a massage.
- Use an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin — only as directed and once in a while. Some pain relievers can actually make headaches worse, particularly if used too often. These are called "rebound headaches."
Making some simple changes in your lifestyle can also help you avoid or reduce headaches.
- Get enough sleep and try to follow a regular sleep schedule.
- Eat regularly, without skipping meals, and choose healthy foods without large amounts of salt or caffeine.
- Maintain good posture, especially if you work at a desk or frequently use the phone.
- Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
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- If you’re not using VA medical services, contact your nearest VA medical center or Vet Center to talk about your needs.
What about other options at VA? VA offers a variety of tools and resources.
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for Veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Community-based Vet Centers provide confidential counseling, community engagement and referral services to eligible individuals and their families. You don’t need to be enrolled in VA healthcare or have a service connection to receive services. Find a Vet Center near you or call 1-877-927-8387, 24/7 to talk with a fellow Veteran about your experiences.
What about support beyond VA?
There’s a whole community of support ready to help with whatever you’re going through. Use this tool to find resources near you.
Explore these resources for more information about Veterans experiencing headaches.
Learn about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to headaches, such as stress and anxiety, depression, effects of traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and trouble sleeping.