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Background: Almost 40% of individuals with chronic whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) report headache after 5 years, making it one of the most common persistent symptoms besides neck pain, but randomized treatment studies are lacking. This study aimed to evaluate the effect of 3 different exercise approaches on headache in chronic WAD grades 2 and 3, and to identify potential factors associated with such headache, and whether they differ depending on 3 different aspects of such headache (current headache, maximum headache, or headache bothersomeness).

Methods: This was an analysis of a randomized clinical trial of people with chronic WAD and headache (n = 188), who were randomized to either 12 weeks of neck-specific exercise without (NSE) or with a behavioral approach (NSEB) or physical activity prescription (PPA). Data were collected at baseline and at 3, 6, and 12 months. Physical and psychosocial factors were tested for association with headache. Multivariate regression models and linear mixed models were used.

Results: The NSE/NSEB groups reported reduced headache both over time and compared to PPA. Up to 51% (NSE) and 61% (NSEB) reported at least 50% reduction in their headache at 12 months. The PPA group was not improved over time. Neck pain and dizziness were associated with headache regardless of aspect of headache. The only associated psychosocial factor was anxiety, which was associated with headache bothersomeness. Other factors were mainly physical, and up to 51% of the variance was explained.

Conclusion: Headache in chronic WAD, may be reduced with neck-specific exercise with or without a behavioral approach. Chronic headache was associated with neck pain and dizziness regardless of aspect tested. Other factors associated with headache in chronic WAD were mainly physical rather than psychosocial.

Trial registration number: Clinical Trials.gov, no: NCT015285

Copyright (C) 2019 The Authors. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.