Importance Posttraumatic headache is the most disabling complication of mild traumatic brain injury. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms are often comorbid with posttraumatic headache, and there are no established treatments for this comorbidity.
Objective To compare cognitive behavioral therapies (CBTs) for headache and PTSD with treatment per usual (TPU) for posttraumatic headache attributable to mild traumatic brain injury.
Design, Setting, and Participants This was a single-site, 3–parallel group, randomized clinical trial with outcomes at posttreatment, 3-month follow-up, and 6-month follow-up. Participants were enrolled from May 1, 2015, through May 30, 2019; data collection ended on October 10, 2019. Post-9/11 US combat veterans from multiple trauma centers were included in the study. Veterans had comorbid posttraumatic headache and PTSD symptoms. Data were analyzed from January 20, 2020, to February 2, 2022.
Interventions Patients were randomly assigned to 8 sessions of CBT for headache, 12 sessions of cognitive processing therapy for PTSD, or treatment per usual for headache.
Main Outcomes and Measures Co–primary outcomes were headache-related disability on the 6-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 treatment completion to 6 months posttreatment.
Results A total of 193 post-9/11 combat veterans (mean [SD] age, 39.7 [8.4] years; 167 male veterans [87%]) were included in the study and reported severe baseline headache-related disability (mean [SD] HIT-6 score, 65.8 [5.6] points) and severe PTSD symptoms (mean [SD] PCL-5 score, 48.4 [14.2] points). For the HIT-6, compared with usual care, patients receiving CBT for headache reported −3.4 (95% CI, −5.4 to −1.4; P < .01) points lower, and patients receiving cognitive processing therapy reported −1.4 (95% CI, −3.7 to 0.8; P = .21) points lower across aggregated posttreatment measurements. For the PCL-5, compared with usual care, patients receiving CBT for headache reported −6.5 (95% CI, −12.7 to −0.3; P = .04) points lower, and patients receiving cognitive processing therapy reported −8.9 (95% CI, −15.9 to −1.9; P = .01) points lower across aggregated posttreatment measurements. Adverse events were minimal and similar across treatment groups.
Conclusions and Relevance This randomized clinical trial demonstrated that CBT for headache was efficacious for disability associated with posttraumatic headache in veterans and provided clinically significant improvement in PTSD symptom severity. Cognitive processing therapy was efficacious for PTSD symptoms but not for headache disability.