Results from a randomized clinical trial of almost 200 military veterans showed that, compared with usual care, CBT for headache led to significant improvement in both headache disability and PTSD symptoms. Cognitive-processing therapy (CPT) also led to significant improvement in PTSD symptoms, but it did not improve headache disability.
Lead author Donald McGeary, PhD, department of rehabilitation medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center,San Antonio, noted the improvements shown in headache disability after CBT were likely caused by its building of patients’ confidence that they could control or manage their headaches themselves.
That sense of control was key to helping patients “get their lives back. If you can improve a person’s belief that they can control their headache, they function better,” Dr. McGeary said in a news release.
The findings were published online in JAMA Neurology.
Both mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD are signature wounds of post-9/11 military conflicts. The two conditions commonly occur together and can harm quality of life and functioning, the investigators noted. Following mild TBI, many veterans experience persistent posttraumatic headache, which often co-occurs with PTSD.
To gauge the impact of CBTs for this patient population, researchers recruited 193 post-9/11 combat veterans (mean age, 39.7 years) with clinically significant PTSD symptoms and posttraumatic headache that had persisted more than 3 months after TBI. Of these, 167 were men.
All participants were receiving care at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System in Houston.
They were randomly allocated to undergo 8 sessions of manualized CBT for headache, 12 sessions of manualized CPT for PTSD, or usual headache treatment.
CBT for headache uses CBT concepts to reduce headache disability and improve mood – and includes key components, such as relaxation, setting goals for activities patients want to resume, and planning for those situations.
CPT is a leading psychotherapy for PTSD. It teaches patients how to evaluate and change upsetting and maladaptive thoughts related to their trauma. The idea is that, by changing thoughts, patients can change the way they feel.
Treatment as usual was consistent with multidisciplinary treatment in a large Veterans Affairs multiple-trauma center and could include pharmacotherapies, physical and occupational therapies, pain medications, acupuncture, and massage.
The coprimary outcomes were headache-related disability on the six-item Headache Impact Test (HIT-6) and PTSD symptom severity on the PTSD Checklist for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (PCL-5), assessed from end of treatment to 6 months post treatment.
At baseline, all participants reported severe headache-related disability (mean HIT-6 score, 65.8 points) and severe PTSD symptoms (mean PCL-5 score, 48.4 points).
Compared with usual care, CBT for headache led to significant improvement in headache disability (posttreatment mean change in HIT-6 score, –3.4 points; P < .01) and PTSD symptoms (posttreatment change in PCL-5, –6.5 points; P = .04).
CPT also led to significant improvement in PTSD symptoms (8.9 points lower on the PCL-5 after treatment; P = .01), but it had only a modest effect on headache disability (1.4 points lower after treatment; P = .21).
“This was a surprise,” Dr. McGeary said. “If theories about PTSD driving posttraumatic headache are correct, you’d expect CPT to help both PTSD and headache. Our findings call that into question.”
Despite improvements in headache disability, CBT for headache did not significantly reduce headache frequency or intensity.
The researchers are now hoping to replicate their findings in a larger trial at multiple military and VA sites around the United States.
“We need more women, more racial and ethnic diversity, veterans as well as active military of different branches with varying comorbidities in different geographic regions attached to different hospitals and medical systems, because we’re comparing to usual care,” Dr. McGeary said.