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Cough headaches: The amazing case of Jack’s exploding head

Man having a headache at home
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My Experience: Dealing with ‘cough’ headaches

Patient experience: cough headachesIf you get headaches or migraines, you might want to read about Jack’s story: a rare tale of pain and recovery, dealing with an uncommon condition that can strike excruciating pain into the skull – at the mere onset of a cough or a sneeze.

The amazing case of Jack’s exploding head

Jack had his first cough headache when he was 51 years old. He says the condition is very rare. In fact, only 3% of the male population will ever experience it, and it afflicts mainly men, usually over the age of 50.

“They only last for about 18 months and you only experience it once in your life,” Jack says. “For a long time, I didn’t it realise they were even related.

“When I first went to the GP, they thought it may have been something to do with diet or lifestyle. I would explain the symptoms but no one really could put a finger on it.”

Jack says the condition is characterised by extreme pain, emanating from the base of the skull then travelling all the way to the front of the forehead.

All this pain comes on just by a simple sneeze or cough.

The pain in Spain falls mainly in my brain

Patient experience: cough headachesJack says the onset of cough headaches severely affected his quality of life.

“It’s debilitating. You can’t cough or sneeze without getting this overwhelming pain,” he says.

“You can’t even move – if you do, it’s worse. If I stayed perfectly still it would help slightly, but the pain would still last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

“I could feel it happening too, so I started to train myself to not sneeze or cough if I felt one coming on.”

Jack says that other people suffering from the same affliction can train themselves to control it, reducing the frequency of the painful attacks.

The silent scream

For anyone suffering from headaches or severe migraines, it can be difficult to talk about it with other people unless they themselves have experienced similar problems.

“It’s also not something people can see, like a broken leg or something,” Jack says.

“So sometimes people will look at you with a ‘crook eye’, as if they’re thinking, ‘Is he putting that on?’

“And because it’s such a rare condition, people can’t really empathise either.”

Luckily, there are professionals who understand and are accessible. You can discuss managing pain with a psychologist, if you feel you’re not understood, or talk to your friends and family. You can even communicate with your employers to ensure they understand your condition.


Patient experience: cough headachesJack spent four months suffering these attacks without relief, so he decided to see a pain specialist who gave him injections at the base of his skull.

“This was to target the pain receptors that were triggered when I coughed,” Jack says.

“So when I coughed, I wouldn’t feel any pain at the back of my head, but I could still feel it on the front of my skull.

“No one had yet suggested it could be cough headaches.

“They put me on all sorts of painkillers and drugs. Although some of them worked, I got a lot of side effects like drowsiness, lack of energy and difficulty sleeping.”

Eureka moment!

After many more months of debilitating headaches, Jack went to another pain specialist. When he went to see him, the specialist was also hosting a colleague from the UK. This twist of fate would finally reveal the true nature of Jack’s elusive condition.

“The colleague heard my symptoms and they both looked it up in an old textbook. All the symptoms were in there,” Jack says.

It was finally described and Jack could put a name to what was happening to him. But it did not bring much relief, as there is no real treatment beside pain medications.

“There’s nothing really you can do and it’s not life-threatening, you just have to live through it,” he says.

Jack had them once every couple of days relentlessly for 18 months and then, he says, one day they “just stopped”.

“Now, living without them … it’s heaven.”

For anyone else suffering headaches or pain without a clear cause, don’t give up on treatments or finding a way to manage your condition. It may not miraculously “stop” one day, but you may find someone who can help.

More information

For more information on coughing including causes, physical examination, tests, treatment and medication, see Cough
Headache For more information on headaches including risk factors, statistics, progression, diagnosis and treatment, see Headache.
Migraine For more information on migraines including risk factors, statistics, progression, diagnosis and treatment, see Migraine.

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Posted On: 12 October, 2010
Modified On: 17 August, 2017

Created by: myVMC