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Are Post-Traumatic Headaches and Concussions the Same Thing?
By: Nataliya Zlotnikov Blog writer, editor: Lexy Dong, MScPT Student


Do you know the difference between a post-traumatic headache and a concussion? Do you know there are different types of post-traumatic headaches? Do you know rest may not be the best treatment for a concussion? Can you distinguish between a persistent headache and a migraine?

Concussions and post-traumatic headaches are increasingly prevalent in clinical practice and can be associated with many different conditions. It is often challenging to differentiate between the two and treat them accordingly.

In a recorded Ask Me Anything webinar, Meaghan Adams provides an opportunity to learn about post-traumatic headaches and concussions. The first webinar was so successful that Meaghan now has three Ask Me Anything webinars as well as other online courses on Embodia that take a deeper dive into each condition. You can find all of her online courses by clicking here.


What is a post-traumatic headache?

Headache is the most commonly reported symptom among patients who have had brain injuries, but it is also the most poorly understood. The term “post-traumatic headache” is used to describe headaches that begin or get worse as a result of trauma to the head and/or neck. Some risk factors that are associated with post-traumatic headaches include mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a prior history of headache.  Post-traumatic headaches can be categorized as either acute or chronic. The headache is considered acute if it has lasted less than three months and it is considered persistent if it has lasted over three months. Types of post-traumatic headaches include migraine, tension-type headache, medication-overuse headache, cervicogenic headache, occipital neuralgia, and whiplash headache.

Post-traumatic headache encompasses many types of headaches, which means the term does not actually tell us anything about a headache’s specific characteristics. It is essential to understand the clinical characteristics of a specific headache in order to provide optimal treatment. Therefore, knowing how to differentiate between the various types of headaches that fall under the term post-traumatic headache will allow you to develop a more effective treatment plan. The International Classification of Headache Disorders is a useful resource that lists and classifies the different headache types and their diagnostic criteria.


What is a concussion?

A concussion is a type of TBI which is caused by a blow to the head or a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. For a long period of time, it was thought that the best treatment for a concussion was to rest or lie in a dark room; however, this may not be the case anymore.

Meaghan Adams suggests getting your patients with concussions to exercise as soon as possible. The more the patient can keep up with their normal activities, the better their outcome will be. This does not mean make your patient run 10km during their first appointment, but it also doesn’t mean have them lie in a room with the lights off for a week. If your patient has a particular aggravating stimulus, limit the exposure to that stimuli; but, don’t fully remove it unless it is the only way your patient can function. You want to try and build up your patient’s tolerance to the aggravating stimulus to maintain as much normality as possible.


To see Meaghan Adams' answer on how to differentiate between the signs and symptoms of trauma and the signs and symptoms of concussions, watch the video below.

Click here for the full course


In the Ask Me Anything Webinars with Meaghan Adams You will Learn:

  • The connection between headache and trauma 
  • Common misconceptions about concussion or post-traumatic headache
  • The types of headaches that can be caused or exacerbated by traumatic injuries 
  • How to differentiate between headache types
  • How to describe the pathology of a concussion to a patient and their family
  • How to educate patients about their condition
  • VOMS assessment verse application for treatment 
  • How to decide which symptoms to prioritize during treatment
  • Treatment options for patients with a concussion or post-traumatic headache
  • Treatment recommendations for concussion headaches that persist for more than one year 
  • How to change your treatment approach for someone with acute verse chronic concussion symptoms 
  • How technology and virtual reality (VR) are being used in the rehabilitation of concussions 
  • When to refer patients to neurologists


In Meaghan Adams' Online Courses You Will Learn:

  • The biomechanics of concussion and relevant anatomy and physiology 
  • Why "post-traumatic headache" is a descriptor, not a diagnosis 
  • To define post-traumatic headache, its classification, and its causes
  • The ability to effectively take a concussion-focused patient history
  • How to treat patients with the various presentations of post-traumatic headache in your own practice
  • The six headache types that can be caused or made worse by physical trauma, including their pain characteristics, pathogenesis, and diagnostic criteria 
  • Treatment strategies for managing post-traumatic headache 
  • Clinical reasoning and decision-making skills related to the management of patients with traumatic brain injuries and headaches

Meaghan Adams' Understanding Post-Traumatic Headache course includes access to an exclusive private forum where you can ask Meaghan your questions.

This course will allow you to better understand these conditions and as a result, will help you better serve your patients and their caregivers. Whether you are a physical therapist, occupational therapist, massage therapist or any other rehab professional looking to expand your current knowledge about post-traumatic headaches and concussions, continue your education with Meaghan Adams' Ask Me Anything webinars or online courses. You can even ask Meaghan your specific questions on the chat forum included in her Understanding Post-Traumatic Headache course.


More from Meaghan Adams

Meaghan Adams
PT, BSc, MSc(PT), PhD(Neuroscience)

Meaghan earned her physiotherapy degree from Queen’s University, and completed Fowler-Kennedy’s Sport Physiotherapy Fellowship before earning a Certificate in Sport Physiotherapy from Sport Physiotherapy Canada. She also holds a Certificate in Vestibular Rehabilitation from Emory University. Meaghan completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, studying how concussions affect brain function and sensory integration, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Toronto Rehab and York University studying the integration of cognition, motor function, and sensory inputs in adults with prolonged concussion symptoms using virtual reality and tablet-based computing.

Meaghan serves as the vice-chair of the Neurosciences Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, and is an Assistant Clinical Professor (Adjunct) at McMaster University’s School of Rehabilitation Science.

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