Headache is a common condition that most people face during their lives. It can be dull or sharp. Several factors may contribute to it. The treatment for headaches differs depending on the symptoms and causes of the headaches.
What is a headache?
Headache is one of the most common medical conditions. It causes pain and discomfort in the head region that extends to the neck. This condition can be mild to severe. Headaches make it difficult to concentrate and work properly.
Almost 7 in 10 people face this condition once a year. The best part is most headaches can be treated with lifestyle changes, medication, and stress management.
Factors that may contribute to headaches include:
- Physical like accident or injury
- Medical like high blood pressure, constipation, or any other illness
- Psychological like stress and anxiety
- Environmental like weather change
Causes of headaches
Headaches can be classified based on their cause. It can be:
Primary headaches can arise as a result of an overactive region of the brain, muscles, nerves, or vessels. They do not occur due to underlying health issues. Your doctor will diagnose and find out the cause of your headache before recommending medication or another treatment.
Cluster headaches, migraine, and tension headaches are the most common examples of primary headaches.
Some lifestyle practices may also contribute to primary headaches like excessive alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, certain foods, sleeping postures, and skipped meals.
Sometimes an underlying health condition causes headaches that are termed secondary.
The most common examples of secondary headaches include:
Tumors in the brain: Brain tumors may contribute to headaches. When the skull begins to develop – it puts pressure on the brain and triggers the pain.
Meningitis: Meninges are membranes that make the lining of the skull. Its purpose is to protect the brain and spinal cord. The infection of meninges is called meningitis, and it contributes to headaches.
Overuse of medication: The excessive use of medications or their termination may also result in headaches.
Sudden shock or trauma: A person may also get a headache due to trauma or shock to the head or brain. This shock might be caused by an accident, a fall, or an injury.
Sinusitis: Inflammation of sinus cavities build up the mucous and puts pressure. It makes it harder for a person to breathe. As a result, it causes swelling of the area around your eyes and face and leads to pain.
Brain aneurysm: The ballooning of blood vessels in the brain can cause bleeding due to rupturing. This condition can be life-threatening and cause headaches.
Spinal headache: The leakage of cerebrospinal fluid, which commonly occurs after anesthesia, contributes to the pain known as a spinal headache.
Thunderclap headaches: Sometimes, several disorders combine to cause severe and sudden headaches. Thunderclap headaches occur due to multiple causes. These are less common but can be life-threatening.
Ice-cream headaches: It is commonly known as brain freeze. It happens when you eat or drink something cold like ice-creams, slushies, popsicles, or frosty drinks. When you expose your head to cold water when diving, you may experience stinging and temporary discomfort.
The best part is that this discomfort is just temporary and fades fast. Sometimes, ice-cream headaches are also called cold stimulus headaches.
Other conditions that may contribute to secondary headaches include:
- High blood pressure
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Ear infections
- Dental problems
Secondary headaches can occur due to some serious medical illness. It is good to see your doctor if your pain is:
- Occurs regularly
- Occurs with other medical conditions like fever or toughness of neck muscles
- Not improving with medication
Types of headaches
There are almost 150 types of headaches, but the most common include:
Tension headaches are periodic. These are common among women aged above 20. These headaches occur due to stress.
Sometimes, poor posture also contributes to it. It gives a feeling of tightness around the head region. It usually lasts for several minutes. But constant stress can lead to prolonged headaches.
Cluster headaches are more common in men aged 20 to 40. This type of headache is rare, and its exact cause is still unknown.
This condition causes severe and burning pain in the head or behind the eyes. It further causes a runny nose or produces nasal congestion.
Cluster headaches can last for a long time — this is referred to as a cluster period. It can last for more than six weeks.
Migraine headaches are common, and it causes severe pain on one side of the head. Along with the pain, people may also experience other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and sensitivity to light, noise, or smell.
There are several types of migraine headaches:
Chronic migraines: These migraines occur for more than 15 days a month. They are rare but occur for longer durations. Chronic migraines are severe and occur on one side of the head or brain. They become worst while running, walking, or doing routine tasks.
This type of migraine can be treated with a mix of different treatment options like medications, lifestyle adjustments, and natural remedies.
Silent migraines: These migraines occur without headaches, which is why called silent migraines. It causes symptoms like nausea, yawning, and tiredness. Silent migraines last for 20 to 30 minutes.
So, it is good to avoid the triggers of migraines like alcohol, chocolate, aged cheese, and coffee. Get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet, and move more to avoid the onset of silent migraines.
Hemiplegic migraines: This condition is rare but can weaken or paralyze one side of the body. Its symptoms are similar to a stroke, and sometimes you do not have pain in the head.
You may experience migraines like symptoms like nausea, throbbing pain, sensitivity to light or noise, and dizziness.
If your symptoms are accompanied by loss of consciousness and weakness, you must see your doctor. Avoid stress, take plenty of rest and avoid bright lights to avoid the onset of migraines.
You must have heard about the medication overuse headaches. It occurs when you use over-the-counter medications more than ten times a month. As a result, withdrawal of this medication will result in rebound headaches.
This type of headache occurs when you stop taking pain medications.
They occur daily and get worst, especially in the morning. It is common among people who take painkillers regularly.
When they discontinue the medication, it causes pain called rebound headaches.
Thunderclap headaches are severe and abrupt. They usually last for a few minutes and can occur without showing any signs or symptoms.
These headaches should be handled carefully – since they might be a sign of underlying health problems. Immediately see your doctor if your headache is accompanied by vomiting, fainting, fatigue, and stiffness in the neck.
This condition can be treated by identifying the cause. Usually, a CT scan is ordered to see the status of the brain.
Migraine vs. headache
Migraines are a common type of headaches. They can last from a few hours to several days. It disrupts a person’s ability to work or pay attention to particular tasks.
The pain usually occurs on one side of the head and sometimes makes a person sensitive to light and noise. It is believed that these types of headaches occur due to improper functioning or overactivity of brain chemicals and nerve pathways.
Genetic and environmental factors both contribute to a person’s susceptibility to migraines. It is estimated that 1 out of every 4 houses in the USA has a person with migraine.
Migraines are common in adult women than men. However, during adolescents, it is common in boys. People having a family history of migraines are also more prone to this condition.
Migraine occurs in three phases:
Prodromal phase: It is the phase that leads to migraine. Several hours or even the days before starting the migraine, you may experience thirst, irritability, craving, and more urge to urinate. It may cause loss of appetite and mood swings too. It is the phase when auras occur. This phase helps the doctors identify the migraines.
Peak headache: This period may last for several minutes to days. It is the period when symptoms get severe. You may find it difficult to concentrate or work properly. Some people experience nausea, vomiting, fainting, and throbbing pain.
Postdrome: This is the time after migraine. It causes drowsiness and mood instability. You can feel excessively agitated and lethargic. It has the potential to endure up to 24 hours. These phases may vary from person to person, depending on the frequency of migraines and severity of symptoms.
Not everyone experiences all three phases of a migraine. If you are experiencing any symptoms, consult your doctor to seek medical advice.
Although there are several types of migraines the two major types include:
Migraine with aura: Sensory disturbances such as changes in vision, spots, shapes, and flashing lights are called an aura. These sensory disturbances can last from a few to 30 minutes. Migraine with aura – once called classical migraines is less severe.
It causes tingling in the arms and legs. Migraine with aura can also affect your vision. You may lose it for 10 to 30 minutes.
Migraine without aura: Migraine without aura was previously called common migraine. This type of migraine is severe and most common.
However, the exact causes of migraines are still unknown. Several factors may trigger it like:
- Skipped meals
- Change in hormonal level
- Fermented foods
- Change in sleep patterns
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Removal of caffeinated beverages from the diet
- Certain foods or fruits
- Strong lights
Symptoms of headache
The symptoms of headaches vary according to their types.
Cluster headache: This type of headache have migraine-like symptoms but does not cause nausea. The pain is on one side of the head and occurs behind the eyes. It is short in duration and followed by:
- Watery and swollen eyes
- Blocked or runny nose
Tension headache: The symptoms of tension headaches include:
- Stiffness in neck and shoulders
- Scalp tightness
- Dull pain
- Pressure or stiffness across the forehead
Sometimes, tension headaches are confused with migraines, but this type of headache does not cause sensory or visual disturbances.
Migraine: The most common symptoms of migraine headaches include:
- Severe and burning pain that makes a person unable to concentrate
- Pain on one side of the head
- Sensitivity to light and noise
Thunderclap headaches: These are sudden and severe headaches. It gets worst within a minute and gradually disappears within a few hours. It can be an indication of a severe medical illness, so immediately seek medical advice.
Its symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain that extends to the neck and back
- Pain in any part of the head
Rebound headaches: Its symptoms vary according to the type of medication a person is taking. The most common symptoms of rebound headaches include:
- Bad temper
- Trouble focusing and remembering
Headaches can occur due to some underlying health issue. Your doctor will identify the basic health issue that is triggering the headaches. They will check your medical history or examine you physically.
These tests also include a complete neurological checkup. Your doctor will also ask you questions about changes in medications or diet.
Sometimes dietary changes or quitting up caffeinated beverages like coffee or tea also trigger the onset of headaches.
If your doctor suspects that recurrent headaches are due to some medical illness, he may ask you to undergo a few tests like:
Skull X-ray: This test allows the doctor to see an in-depth overview of your skull and its bones. It is usually ordered after an injury or trauma. This is one of the most effective methods to see the skull, bones, deformities, and fractures in the skull.
Sinus X-ray: Sinuses are the air-filled pockets that make the structure of nasal pathways. They are involved in humidifying the air that is passing through the nose. This imaging test is ordered to see the sinusitis. A small amount of radiation is used to see the details of your sinuses.
CBC (complete blood count): CBC is ordered if your doctor suspects an infection. This test is performed to evaluate your overall health, and diagnose a problem if you have unexplained symptoms like weakness and tiredness along with headaches.
CT or MRI scan: These tests are performed if there is an indication of blood clots in the brain. It gives a vivid image of the interior of the brain.These scans are recommended if your symptoms are worsening, and you are receiving headaches daily.
EEG (electroencephalogram): This test is usually not the part of headaches diagnosis, but in some cases, when your doctor suspects the seizures, EEG is performed.
If your headache is getting worse even after treatment, ask your doctor to refer you to a headache specialist to identify the cause and proper treatment.
When to see a doctor?
Most headaches go on their own and are not an indication of a life-threatening condition. However, if you are experiencing continuous headaches after an injury, shock, or accident – you must consult your doctor.
Immediately see your doctor if your headache is accompanied by:
- Pressure around eyes
- Facial numbness
- Nasal discharge
Treatment of headaches
The treatment of headaches varies according to their type and cause. If the headaches are due to some other medical condition, they will go away on their own once this illness is treated.
Most headaches can be treated with painkillers. These are not an indication of serious medical illnesses.
If medication is not working, you may try several other methods to treat your headache.
Stress management: Talk to your doctor or join the stress management classes to learn how to manage your stress. These methods will allow you to stay relaxed and avoid headaches when you are going through periods of stress or anxiety.
Biofeedback: It is a relaxation technique that helps people manage their pain. It helps you control the activity of the muscles in response to stress.
CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy): This therapy helps you identify and avoid the situations that make you feel unhappy or stressed.
Cold and hot therapy: This therapy involves applying hot pads or ice packs to your head to avoid headaches. Taking a hot or cold shower also helps in relieving the pain.
Acupuncture: Several tiny and fine needles are used and are applied to specific parts of the body to reduce your stress and anxiety level.
Exercise: Sometimes, mild to moderate exercise also helps you relieve the heed pain. It produces brain chemicals that make you calm, relaxed, and happy.
Various medications are available in the market. You can try these too with the recommendation of your doctor.
US FDA has also approved Aimovig as a treatment for headaches, especially migraines. It is good to talk to your doctor before using any medications for headaches.
Your doctor will identify the cause of the pain and suggest the treatment accordingly.
Natural remedies for headaches
Many people prefer to use natural remedies to treat their headaches. It is good to ask your doctor first before going through these remedies to avoid the negative impacts.
Few natural remedies may benefit you from headaches:
Drink plenty of water: Excessive dehydration can lead to headaches, especially migraines and tension headaches. It also causes irritability and impaired focus. It is important to keep yourself hydrated throughout the day. Drinking water helps to relieve the pain within a few minutes to three hours.
Feverfew: It is a pain-relieving herb, particularly for migraines. This flowering plant has excellent anti-inflammatory properties. However, more research is required to see whether it is good to treat headaches or not.
Butterbur: This is a shrub native to Germany. The extracts of this shrub are used to treat migraines. The recommended daily dose is harmless and is effective to treat headaches. Generally, it is safe to use, but some people may develop allergies. If you are allergic to particulate plants or weeds – you must consult your doctor before using these extracts.
Coenzyme Q10: This is a coenzyme that has been seen as effective to treat migraines. According to University of Minnesota studies, ingesting 100 mg of this enzyme three times a day can lower the severity and frequency of migraines.
Vitamin B12: Taking vitamin B 12 daily can help you reduce your headache. This vitamin is water-soluble, safe to consume, and flushes out of the body through urine. It is cost-effective too.
Magnesium: Magnesium is important for various processes of the body. Its deficiency in the diet can lead to headaches. People who take magnesium supplements have seen fewer incidences of headaches than others. Magnesium infusion is found effective for the treatment of migraines and other types of headaches.
Apart from these natural remedies, different people adopt different practices to treat their pain. It includes massage, therapies, yoga, and supplements.
Other options include acupressure that involves pressing certain parts of the body to relieve the pain.
Exercise and dietary changes can also help you ease the pain. For example, if you are having pain as a result of constipation, consider adding extra fiber to your diet to reduce the occurrences of headaches.
Similarly, instead of abruptly discontinuing caffeine, concentrate on gradual withdrawal. It will adjust your body to this routine.
You can reduce the chances of headaches by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Taking proper sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise will lessen the chances of pain.
You can adopt the following prevention methods to avoid the headaches:
Avoid headache triggering foods
These foods vary from person to person. Most people are aware of the foods that trigger the onset of headaches in them.
Usually, these foods cause headaches:
- Fatty or oily foods
- Dairy products
- Aged cheese
- Food additives
A person must avoid foods that trigger headaches.
Take plenty of sleep
Lack of sleep can lead to headaches. It is one of the leading causes of head pain. Taking proper rest and sleep is good to avoid headaches. It also makes you feel fresh and calm.
Taking more than 3 cups of coffee or tea can prompt the headache during withdrawal episodes. It is good to limit the intake of caffeine or completely avoid it. If you are planning to quit it, gradually make the efforts to do so.
Instead of six cups a day, switch to 5 cups and so on. Your body is less likely to react against it. It will prevent you from headaches too.
Different mind and body therapies like biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive behavior therapy have shown effectiveness against headaches. People with stress or anxiety can get help from these therapies.
Tension headaches can be prevented by taking exercise regularly three times a week. Adopting good health practices like running, walking, and eating a healthy diet prevent you from headaches.
Various massage therapies have also been shown to be useful in preventing and treating headaches. These massage therapies target specific points of the body. It eases the pain, relaxes the body, and improves health.