Veterans and traumatic brain injury: Healing headaches

Nearly half-a-million US military members suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, after the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Traumatic Brain Injury-- or TBI was also more frequently diagnosed in veterans serving in conflicts after the 9/11 terror attacks. Now, a new non-drug therapy is working to help veterans suffering from headaches cause by both conditions.

SAN ANTONIO – Nearly 500,000 American servicemen and women suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, was also more frequently diagnosed in veterans serving in post 9-11 conflicts. Now, a new non-drug therapy addresses veterans struggling with headaches caused by both.

Memory loss and headaches still plague Army veteran Michael Gatter 18 years after three traumatic brain injuries during deployment in Iraq.

“Somebody had taken an explosive satchel and threw it on top of the vehicle, and it detonated,” Gatter remembers.

Then, Michael’s military vehicle swerved to avoid a runaway truck, rolled over, suspending him in mid-air.

He says, “I unbuckled my harness and when I unbuckled, it came head-first down on the driver’s hatch.”

And strike three, a tank hatch knocked Michael in the head. Those three incidents triggered 20 years of debilitating headaches and memory loss. That is until Michael participated in a groundbreaking cognitive behavioral study conducted by UT Health San Antonio.

It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy for headache, or CBTH. The researchers modified psychotherapy treatment traditionally used for migraine sufferers.

Professor at UT Health San Antonio and South Texas Veterans Health Care System, Don McGeary, PhD, explains, “Not only did we see better headache outcomes from this headache treatment, which was expected, we showed PTSD improvements that were comparable to a gold standard PTSD treatment.”

During therapy, trained clinical psychologists taught vets to prevent their headache triggers, manage stress, and re-engage in daily activities.

“It really helps them cope better,” Professor McGeary reassures.

Gatter adds, “My mission is helping my veteran community. What I like to do is everything I learn, I pass on.”

Professor McGeary and his colleagues developed this therapy by modifying a previous migraine study. All research was conducted at the South Texas Veteran’s Health care system. Professor McGeary and his colleagues are looking to replicate their findings in a more diverse sample. They plan to test CBTH in a larger trial at multiple military and VA sites around the United States.