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Veterans who deployed are more likely to develop migraines or headache disorders

Migraine and other headache disorders can take an immense toll on a Veteran’s physical and emotional health. From the physiological symptoms that can cause debilitating pain to the negative impact they may have on relationships or professional endeavors, these conditions can unfortunately follow a service member home long after their deployment.

Although medically classified as a “headache disorder,” migraine has very distinct differences from what many would consider a typical headache. In addition to the presence of severe and/or lasting head pain, migraine attacks are characterized by other symptoms which may include: nausea; sensitivity to sound or touch; dizziness; and more. Another key indicator is migraine light sensitivity and other visual disturbances that are frequently reported by people with the condition. Ultimately, all of these symptoms reflect the neurological basis for migraine—indicating hyperreactivity in the brain that is often triggered by external stimuli. Moreover, attacks can last for hours or even days, and are considered chronic if a person experiences more than 15 in a month.

Unfortunately, Veterans are more likely to develop migraine or other persistent headache disorders than their civilian counterparts, according to research. In fact, one study showed that 36 percent of Veterans who had completed a 12-month deployment to Iraq were either diagnosed with or exhibited symptoms of migraine. In comparison, it has been estimated that migraine affects approximately 12 percent of the general population.

Although there have been broad genetic links to migraine, many researchers believe Veterans are likely to develop the condition as a result of their service in the military. In addition to increased exposure to stressful combat situations, servicemen and women have higher rates of traumatic brain injury (TBI), concussion (mild TBI), or neck trauma; this can be caused by explosions, falls or other accidents. The post-traumatic headache that often follows these injuries dissipates for many within a few months, but in some cases it can persist longer or become chronic – especially if multiple traumas have occurred. Not surprisingly, migraine diagnoses increased by 27 percent among all branches of the armed forces from 2001-2007, according to a report by the Department of Defense.

The impact that migraine has on members of the military is also significant. For instance, the neurological and emotional consequences of mild or severe TBI can persist five or even ten years after the injury in rare cases. Another analysis showed that 20 percent of soldiers with a history of deployment-related concussion went on to develop chronic daily headache, a condition with symptoms that resemble chronic migraine. Furthermore, Veterans often experience more severe pain and disability from their attacks than non-Veterans, and migraine can reduce their “return to duty” rates as well.

There is hope for Veterans who have migraine. It starts with a proactive approach that is focused on addressing the underlying condition. Here are a few recommendations to get started on the right path for treatment.

See a neurologist or headache specialist

The first step to treating service-related migraine is to visit a neurologist or headache specialist. This will help rule out complications from a prior injury or the existence of another condition and ultimately allow for a proper diagnosis. In addition, these professionals can help identify triggers and craft an individualized approach for treatment.

Develop a migraine prevention and treatment plan

A core strategy for migraine management is to establish a plan to reduce the frequency of attacks and treat attacks effectively when they do occur. Ideally, this plan will be formulated with the assistance of your doctor or neurologist, and it will often incorporate medication options—both for prevention purposes as well as acute medication designed to break an attack after it has started.

Alternative therapies may also be recommended, such as:

  • Botox injections for chronic migraine
  • Professional acupuncture
  • Tinted glasses, which research shows can protect from indoor lights that can trigger migraine attacks, like screens and light bulbs
  • Polarized sunglasses for outdoor use, bright sunshine and glare
  • Dietary considerations
  • Sleep pattern recommendations
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques

In general, these treatments have differing levels of success and may not work for every Veteran, especially given that triggers vary from person to person as well as between attacks. However, these options do have a track record of helping in the prevention of migraine attacks, and they should be considered for a Veteran’s care with the guidance of his or her doctor. Lastly, a plan should also list out the locations of nearby hospitals or urgent care facilities for attacks that may require emergency attention.

Connect with your local VA

VA can be a great option for Veterans with migraine. VA is able to connect Veterans to a large network of doctors, neurologists and medical facilities that can help them better diagnose and treat their condition; it also can procure alternative treatment options through its VA benefits program on behalf of patients. This can help decrease the reliance on prescribed medications and naturally reduce the impact of migraine or other headache disorders.

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