Last updated on October 22nd, 2020 at 12:09 am
CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) HEADACHE AND TREATMENT, AND WHY YOUR MIGRAINES ARE WORSE WITHOUT EVEN BEING INFECTED.
Covid-19 headache, coronavirus headache, Covid headache and Covid19 headache are all terms for the same headaches which have been on the rise thanks to Coronavirus (Covid-19). This has been happening in patients who have gotten infected with Covid-19. We’ll be discussing that in much greater detail further down, as well as how to treat Covid-19 headache. Interestingly though, migraines and headache have been worsening in patients who have not been infected at all as well. So how is Covid-19 worsening headaches in patients who haven’t been infected? This phenomenon on worsening headaches related to Covid-19 in patients who haven’t been infected is predominantly occurring in patients with migraine. Let me tell you the reasons why.
Why are my migraines worse since Covid-19 and how are they treated?
We look at migraine as an electrical neurological event. It is no longer considered a “vascular headache”, which older terminology suggested. People with migraine have a hypersensitive, or hyperactive, neurological system. So when they encounter triggers, their migraine circuitry switch turns on easier, compared to someone without a migraine history. Basically, they have a lower threshold to trigger a migraine compared to someone without migraine.
Stress is a major, major migraine trigger, and one of the top triggers. Did I mention it is a MAJOR migraine trigger? Ok, you get the point. In addition to stress, there are a wide spectrum of triggers ranging from weather changes, hormones, foods, food additives, too little sleep, excess sleep, and a whole array of others. However, let’s talk about Covid-19 stress.
Unless you’ve been living in isolation in a doom’s day bunker deep in the remote countryside, the Covid-19 pandemic has been very stressful on everyone. So not surprisingly, migraine has also been much worse in general for patients with migraine given these increased stress levels. Everyone’s world has been turned upside down with Covid-19. Our routines and life as we’ve known it were abruptly changed. Parents suddenly became teachers at home, despite no knowledge or ability of knowing how to teach. Screen time skyrocketed (which is often a migraine trigger) from virtual teaching, virtual school, Zoom meetings, and a whole spectrum of other nightmarish virtual work meetings. The frequent crashing of these virtual platforms for many people is also very stress inducing, and likely led to some broken computer screens followed by unanticipated repair costs, and ok, you get the point here. People became socially isolated, which worsened mood for many people, and this often correlates with migraines worsening as well. Spouses and family members found themselves in quarantines and spending way more time together than they were used to or liked to, and that can also be stress inducing for many couples. Kids were home constantly, needing entertainment for their perpetual “I’m bored” complaints, basically just never letting parents get a break, and there were many reports of children actually turning into demons at home. Ok, maybe not, but I think you get the picture. The bottom line is that there have been many changes in our normal routines which were often very intrusive, disruptive, and stress inducing.
Treatment of the increased migraine frequency during Covid-19 (or any other time of increase) consists of typical management strategies. Conservative measures including well techniques, yoga, medication, diet, hydration, proper sleep and exercise certainly play a role. If frequency remains high, then preventive treatment should be considered for a few months until migraines improve. Having 4 or more migraines per month is a general guideline of when a preventive treatment is often considered. Preventive treatments include natural therapies, supplements and nutraceuticals, daily medications, CGRP monoclonal antibody therapy, and neuromodulatory devices.
What is Coronavirus (Covid-19) Headache?
First of all, the International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition (ICHD-3) accounts for Headache attributed to systemic viral infection, which is common with many nonspecific infections including viral infections such as the common cold or other upper respiratory viral infections. So headache is certainly not specific only to Coronavirus, but it is common with many common viral infections. These types of nonspecific headaches are diagnosed with the following criteria:
- Headache of any duration fulfilling criterion C
- Both of the following:
- systemic viral infection has been diagnosed
- no evidence of meningitic or encephalitic involvement
- Evidence of causation demonstrated by at least two of the following:
- headache has developed in temporal relation to onset of the systemic viral infection
- headache has significantly worsened in parallel with worsening of the systemic viral infection
- headache has significantly improved or resolved in parallel with improvement in or resolution of the systemic viral infection
- headache has either or both of the following characteristics: a) diffuse pain, b) moderate or severe intensity
4. Not better accounted for by another ICHD-3 diagnosis
Coronavirus (Covid-19) headache refers to headaches that have been triggered in direct relation to becoming infected with Covid-19, which is also associated with a variety of other symptoms and a positive Covid-19 test. First of all, if you already have migraine, you will generally be much more likely to have an increase in headaches since your internal electrical wiring already predisposes you to having headaches easier when the body is under any stress (emotional, physical, infection, stress, etc.), as discussed above. So if you get infected with Covid-19, you may have an increase in your baseline migraines for this reason, similar to what often happens with other types of infections (including the common cold). However, headache is a common (and often early) Covid-19 symptom in patients who do not have a migraine or headache either, similar to headaches which can be caused by many other types of infections as well.
The Covid-19 associated headache is often daily and commonly has migraine characteristics (throbbing, pounding, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound), or it can have tension type headache character (dull achy pressure throughout head), or a combination of both. One small study reported that Covid-19 associated headaches also had some unusual features, including new rapid onset unrelenting pain (including a thunderclap headache presentation), higher intensity, and association with anosmia/ageusia (loss of smell/taste), diarrhea, reduced appetite, and weight loss.
Coronavirus headache may also present with a story which fits well with New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH). This is a headache that begins as a daily headache and persists as daily for more than 3 months, without any other known cause. Classically, patients with NDPH often will come into the office and tell you the specific date the headache began and that it has never gone away since. It may fluctuate in the severity levels, but it never fully goes away. It often has an overlapping mixture of migraine characteristics (throbbing, pounding, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound), and tension type headache characteristics (dull achy pressure throughout head). NDPH most often occurs without a clear reason. However, notably one of the most common associations if there is one is a nonspecific viral infection such as a cold or upper respiratory infection that precedes the headache. Covid-19 is simply another type of virus which can be associated with this form of headache.
How is Coronavirus (Covid-19) Headache treated?
Treatment of Covid-19 itself should follow current guidelines as directed by your regular doctor as well as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines. Beyond this, treatment of Coronavirus headache revolves around symptomatic treatment. This basically means you are treating the symptoms rather than the virus itself, as is the case with the majority of viral infections (such as common cold viruses) besides treatable ones such as herpes simplex virus (HSV) and varicella zoster virus (VZV). If the headaches have migrainous features, they can be treated as migraine, tension-type headache, or NDPH with acute/abortive options, and preventive daily treatment options if the frequency of headaches remains high and is not improving.