Persons with traumatic brain injury (TBI) can suffer from pain and headaches immediately following their injury and throughout the period of recovery. Pain has a negative effect on cognitive recovery, sleep, mood, anxiety and can precipitate challenging behaviours. Some individuals can be managed with non-pharmacological strategies like cognitive behavioural counselling and biofeedback. Some individuals have pain related to the nerve injury (neuropathic pain) which requires treatments with different types of analgesic medications.
Clinicians should develop competency in comprehensive assessment of pain. Patients should be routinely asked about the nature and severity of pain. Ideally, brain injury services should have easy access to specialists in pain management.
Persons with TBI can suffer from pain and headaches immediately following their injury and throughout the period of recovery. Moreover delay in cognitive recovery, sleep disorders and fatigue, elevated levels of anxiety and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are issues associated with pain (Dobscha et al., 2009; Hoffman et al., 2007). A lack of recognition or diagnosis of pain can lead to an increase in aggression and agitation, or an inability to participate or benefit from rehabilitation (Ivanhoe & Hartman, 2004; Sherman, Goldberg, & Bell, 2006); therefore, early detection and management of pain is important to minimize the use of maladaptive coping strategies and maximize an individual’s recovery. Several treatments have shown to be effective such as cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback and medication. Biofeedback, relaxation, meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy are often considered the standard of behavioural treatments for pain (Branca & Lake, 2004). Biofeedback (thermal and EMG) as an intervention for post-traumatic headaches was studied by Tatrow, Blanchard, and Silverman (2003) in combination with progressive muscle relaxation. Improvements in post-traumatic headaches were seen for the majority of participants; four participants had a clinically significant improvement in headache activity, six had some improvement, two had minor improvement and two worsened (Tatrow et al., 2003). Cognitive behavioural therapy has also been shown to be effective in reducing post-traumatic headaches. In a pre-post study, Gurr and Coetzer (2005) investigated 20 participants with a mild to severe TBI. Following cognitive behavioural therapy, headache intensity and headache frequency significantly decreased (p=0.004). Headache disability also decreased as measured by the Headache Disability Inventory (p=0.001) and the Headaches Needs Assessment (p=0.02) (Gurr & Coetzer, 2005).
Branca, B., & Lake, A. E. (2004). Psychological and neuropsychological integration in multidisciplinary pain management after TBI. J Head Trauma Rehabil, 19(1), 40-57.
Dobscha, S. K., Clark, M. E., Morasco, B. J., Freeman, M., Campbell, R., & Helfand, M. (2009). Systematic review of the literature on pain in patients with polytrauma including traumatic brain injury. Pain Med, 10(7), 1200-1217.
Gurr, B., & Coetzer, B. R. (2005). The effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural therapy for post-traumatic headaches. Brain Inj, 19(7), 481-491.
Hoffman, J. M., Pagulayan, K. F., Zawaideh, N., Dikmen, S., Temkin, N., & Bell, K. R. (2007). Understanding pain after traumatic brain injury: impact on community participation. Am J Phys Med Rehabil, 86(12), 962-969.
Ivanhoe, C. B., & Hartman, E. T. (2004). Clinical caveats on medical assessment and treatment of pain after TBI. J Head Trauma Rehabil, 19(1), 29-39.
Sherman, K. B., Goldberg, M., & Bell, K. R. (2006). Traumatic brain injury and pain. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am, 17(2), 473-490, viii.
Tatrow, K., Blanchard, E. B., & Silverman, D. J. (2003). Posttraumatic headache: an exploratory treatment study. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 28(4), 267-278.
Level of evidence
Pain should always be considered if a person with traumatic brain injury presents agitation or has cognitive/communication issues, non-verbal psychomotor restlessness or worsening spasticity, with particular attention paid to non-verbal signs of pain (e.g., grimacing).