Coping With Headaches After a Stroke

man having headaches
Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

A stroke causes neurological effects that correspond to injured regions of the brain, such as weakness, numbness and speech difficulties.

Headaches are among the lesser known consequences of stroke. About 10-15% of stroke survivors begin to experience new headaches shortly after a stroke.

Headaches may be distracting, painful, or even may limit your ability to participate in activities that you enjoy. There are several effective treatments for post-stroke headaches, and your treatment depends largely on your type of headaches and the other medications that you take.

Types of Post-Stroke Headaches

Headaches that begin for the first time after a stroke are not necessarily correlated to the location of a stroke within the brain. Post-stroke headaches may fall into several headache categories.

You may recognize some of the following features of your post-stroke headaches:

  • Medication overuse headaches are the consequence of excessive pain medication. The use of pain medication generally provides temporary relief for a few hours, often followed by a mild withdrawal effect that can induce pain. Your doctor can develop a schedule for you to gradually decrease the use of pain medication so that you will not continue to suffer from medication overuse headaches.
  • Tension headaches cause head pain and are not normally associated with other symptoms. Tension headaches are usually relatively easy to control with mild medication and rest.
  • Migraine headaches are generally very painful and may be associated with nausea, neurological symptoms and an overwhelming sense of fatigue. Migraine headaches may require powerful prescription medications. Because some migraine medications are not recommended for people with heart disease or stroke, you may need to see a neurologist to manage your post-stroke migraine headaches.
  • One of the medications commonly used after a stroke may cause headaches. Dipyridamole is a blood thinner used to prevent strokes. For some people, it can trigger headaches, possibly because it causes blood vessels to dilate (widen). Migraine headaches are one of the side effects of dilated cerebral blood vessels. Interestingly, this headache side effect does not necessarily make dipyridamole a bad guy. A study published in the October 2014 issue of the European Journal of Neurology reported that stroke survivors who suffered from dipyridamole induced headaches actually had fewer recurrent strokes than those who did not experience headaches as a side effect.

    What You Should Do About Post-Stroke Headaches

    Headaches can be bothersome, but may also be alarming. If you begin to experience headaches after a stroke, it is important to talk to your doctor about your headaches for two reasons.

    • First of all, you need to make sure that your post-stroke headaches are not an indication of a serious problem. Most of the time, headaches do not turn out to be the sign of anything worrisome. Your doctor can determine whether your headaches are a sign of something more significant.
    • The second reason to get medical attention for your headaches is that headaches are treatable. There are many medications and interventions that can reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.

    Why Do Post-Stroke Headaches Occur?

    After a stroke, it is not uncommon to develop new pain symptoms, often referred to as post-stroke pain. Some stroke survivors notice new joint pain, shoulder pain or skin pain after a stroke, with as many as 1/3 of stroke survivors complaining of pain severe enough to interfere with daily activities.

    Headaches are similar to other types of post-stroke pain patterns, but they have their own unique characteristics. The root source of post stoke headaches is not completely understood and may be related to a number of causes. Stroke-induced injury to sensory regions of the brain can trigger pain. Alterations in the electrical activity of the brain after the damage of a stroke can lead to pain. The changes in blood flow in the brain after a stroke can also produce pain, particularly head pain.

    A Word From Verywell

    Headaches may start for the first time after a stroke. Most of the time, stroke-induced headaches are not a sign of a serious problem. Typically, while you are having your stroke evaluation, your doctors order medical tests and imaging studies. These tests are among the tools that your medical team uses to make a treatment plan to manage your stroke and help you in recovery. These tests, which are part of the stroke work-up, can help guide your doctors in determining whether your post-stroke headaches are worrisome.

    If you are a stroke survivor, you may experience a number of bothersome symptoms. But as you recover from your stroke, it is important for you to understand that post-stroke headaches are manageable with the right medical treatment. You should discuss your post-stroke headaches with your doctor so that you can get the best treatment to control your pain.

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