Project MARCH: Multisite Advancement of Research on Chronic Posttraumatic Headache

Jul 24, 2023

Nearly 3 million U.S. service members have deployed since 9/11, with up to 690,000 estimated to have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Posttraumatic headache (PTH), or headache onset or worsening after a head or neck injury, is the most common and disabling symptom from TBI. Other co-occurring conditions, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), also can compound or even cause headaches. A national study showed chronic PTH (lasting more than 3 months) among 60%-65% of veterans with service-related TBI. Other studies have shown high unemployment rates and decreased activity levels in this population even 10 years after injury.

Non-medication treatments are needed
However, military PTH is poorly understood, with little guidance from research on how to manage it effectively. Due to its similarity to migraines, PTH is typically treated with the same types of medications. However, medication does not cure PTH, and overuse can worsen it, while side effects cause many to avoid or discontinue their use. And since medications do not address contributing factors like PTSD, there is great need for non-medication treatments for co-occurring psychological problems.

A promising non-medication intervention
In the first large, randomized clinical trial for military-related headache, a group of investigators successfully treated manualized, multi-component, cognitive-behavioral therapy for migraine headache adapted specifically for military PTH. The research team led by Donald McGeary, PhD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, used a treatment called Combined Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for PTH. It led to significant, lasting improvement in PTH and related disability in veterans who had PTH and PTSD symptoms and was as effective as a top PTSD therapy in reducing PTSD symptoms. By comparison, veterans receiving treatment as usual at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) polytrauma center showed no significant improvement in disability.

Building on success of previous trial
Dr. McGeary’s group has designed a STRONG STAR-affiliated study to build on that success. The group will enroll 525 participants from clinics at seven VA and U.S. Department of Defense sites nationwide. Military personnel and veterans who have chronic PTH with or without PTSD will be assigned randomly to one of three treatment arms: Combined Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CCBT), Telemedicine-Based Combined Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TCBT), or treatment as usual. That will allow investigators to compare CCBT and TCBT to treatment as usual among patients with diverse demographics, trauma and headache histories, and comorbidities and when delivered in different military and VA settings. It also will provide evidence about the therapy’s efficacy when delivered via telehealth, compared to in-person in a clinic. The research group will include Co-Principal Investigator Blessen Eapen, MD, chief of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Health Care System, who has extensive experience in military trauma research.

Potential relief for thousands
If successful, this study will provide a needed evidence-based, non-medication treatment for reducing PTH and PTSD symptoms and disability that can be widely disseminated in military and VA facilities to a diversity of patients. Validation of the treatment via telehealth would further expand access at smaller or more remote locations. CCBT and TCBT potentially could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of service members and veterans, boost military readiness, and reduce military and VA disability costs. With the high prevalence of PTH in civilians, the treatment also could benefit the general public.