Headache pain following a concussion due to neck dysfunction

Post-Concussion Headaches

Post-concussion headaches are, unfortunately, a common complaint, even years after the original injury. Understanding the connection between concussions and the neck can help explain why headaches are so common and, more importantly, what you can do about it.

A woman with a post-concussion headache

Concussion and the Brain: A Temporary Neurological Cascade

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that a blow to the head or sudden and forceful movement of the head can cause. Most people are familiar with sports-related concussions, but they also occur in car accidents, workplace incidents, or during falls at home or in the community. Concussions trigger a complex neurological cascade. This process involves a temporary alteration in brain function, typically resolving within one to two weeks. Patients might experience headaches, dizziness, and cognitive disturbances during this period. However, in most cases, these symptoms are transient as the brain recovers.

A woman who has a post-concussion headache after an accident

Whiplash and the Neck

A whiplash injury accompanies most concussions. This sudden, rapid head movement strains the neck’s muscles and ligaments. Symptoms of whiplash can vary but commonly include neck pain and stiffness, headaches (typically at the base of the skull), dizziness, blurred vision, and fatigue. Some people may also experience ringing in the ears (tinnitus), sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems. These symptoms overlap with the symptoms of concussion. However, unlike the brain’s neurological cascade, which tends to resolve relatively quickly, physical trauma to the neck can have more enduring effects, especially if not treated right away.

Persistent Headaches After Concussion

When the neck injury is not adequately addressed, it can lead to ongoing issues such as muscle tightness, nerve irritation, and joint dysfunction in the cervical spine (neck region). These conditions are frequently the culprits behind the persistence of post-concussion headaches. As the brain injury heals, these neck-related symptoms can remain, often leading to a misinterpretation that the concussion is still the primary issue.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Recognizing and treating the neck component is crucial for lasting relief from post-concussion headaches. Specialized physical therapy plays a vital role in this process. A therapist experienced in advanced treatment of the neck and related tissues can significantly impact your recovery.

Some treatment techniques used include manual therapy, dry needling, exercise therapy, and pain management techniques. If there is dizziness or persistent visual issues, your therapist may also incorporate vestibular rehabilitation.

Carol Grgic, PT, performing physical therapy to a patient's neck to relieve post-concussion headache symptoms

Empowerment Through Education and Awareness

Concussions can be scary, especially if your symptoms persist. Understanding the distinction between temporary brain injury from a concussion and potentially persistent neck issues is crucial. With targeted therapy and self-management strategies, patients can not only find relief from their current headaches but also prevent recurrences.

It’s Never Too Late

If you have experienced a concussion and continue to suffer from headaches, it’s important to consider the role your neck might be playing. Consulting with a specialized orthopedic physical therapist could be your first step towards uncovering the root cause of your symptoms and starting on a path to recovery. Remember, the neck may still need your attention, even long after your brain has recovered.

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Picture of Carol Grgic, PT, OCS, CSCS

Carol Grgic, PT, OCS, CSCS

Carol Grgic is the owner and treating therapist at Elite Bodyworks in the Historic Third Ward, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has extensive experience treating athletes and active people of all levels. She has a particular interest in headache treatment. She also enjoys blogging about health and wellness topics.

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