Headaches are one of the fastest-growing reasons soldiers are evacuated from the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan before their tours of duty are up, a recent study found.
And it’s not seen as a trivial complaint. Dr. Steven P. Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, who led the study, found that concussions were the cause of most of the headaches that sent soldiers home, with Kevlar helmets, which soldiers on patrol are required to wear, also to blame in many cases.
The study, which was funded in part by the U.S. Army, found that neurological illness was the third leading cause of non-combat-related loss of unit strength in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Headaches are the most common neurological complaints in both of these conflicts.
Cohen and his fellow researchers reviewed the medical records of all of the 985 American military personnel evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan because of a headache between 2004 and 2009. About 67 percent of them did not return to either war zone. Only one in five of those whose headaches were caused by a physical trauma returned.
Headache pain cannot be measured by any medical test, so doctors must rely on a patient’s own assessment. Cohen, who directs research on chronic pain at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, says he doesn’t believe that soldiers are exaggerating headache pain to get sent home early.
Kevlar helmets, he said, are known to place pressure on the occipital nerve, or even damage the nerve, which was found to be the cause of pain for many of the headache sufferers who were eventually evacuated.
The results of the study were published in Cephalalgia, the journal of the International Headache Society.