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  • Monika Getty

All About Headaches

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Many of us know that horrible throbbing pain of a headache. Sometimes it feels like your head is in a vise, other times it's a shooting pain right into your eye on one side of your skull. Wherever you feel it, headaches are just plain awful.

There are many types of headaches, each with their own causes, locations and symptoms. If you look on the internet, different sites will tell you that there are between 4 to over 100 types of headaches! However, headaches fall into 2 basic categories: primary and secondary.

A primary headache is one where the headaches aren't due to another medical problem; the headache itself is the main problem. They are not due to an underlying disease, so the pain associated with these types of headaches come from inflammation in and around the head and neck that are sensitive to pain, such as muscles, blood vessels and nerves. The most common primary headache types include:

Migraine headaches - Migraines are typically (but not always) on one side of the head. They can last for hours or days and are often associated with nausea/vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. Sometimes migraines are preceded with warning symptoms, or an aura, which can include visual disturbances like flashing lights, blind spots or other vision changes. Triggers of migraines can include weather changes, hormonal changes, stress, smells, certain foods and drinks, medications, etc.

Tension headaches - These are sometimes called hatband headaches, as the pain is usually around the back of the head, the temples and forehead, as if you were wearing a tight hat. They can also last hours to days. Tension headaches can be triggered by stress, eye strain, alcohol, caffeine, dehydration, fatigue, jaw or dental problems, etc.

Cluster headaches - Cluster headaches are generally shorter in duration, from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, are one sided and usually occur around, behind and above the eye. Bouts of frequent attacks are called cluster periods and can last for weeks to months, then nothing for a while. The pain can be very severe, with some sufferers describing it as a drilling sensation. The cause of these headaches is unknown, but some theories suggest abnormalities in your hypothalamus might be the cause. When you enter a cluster period, certain triggers like cigarette smoke, alcohol and strong smells can trigger a headache.

Secondary headaches are headaches that are caused by another medical condition. They are more rare but can be much more serious than primary headaches; they can be a warning sign of a more serious underlying condition such as an aneurysm, brain tumors, head injury, trauma, infection, high blood pressure, meningitis, etc. If you or someone you know is experiencing sudden, debilitating head pain, it is important to seek immediate medical assistance, especially if the pain is accompanied by confusion, slurred speech, fever, stiff neck, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or follows a head injury. Secondary headaches can also include sinus headaches (caused by allergies or a head cold), hormonal headaches, caffeine headaches (from either too much caffeine or quitting coffee cold turkey), and rebound headaches (caused by overusing over the counter or prescription pain killers).

Headaches tend to run in families, especially migraines. In fact, children whose parents have migraines are up to 4 times more likely to suffer from migraines as well.

So what can we do to prevent headaches? As headaches all have different causes, it's important to identify your triggers and avoid them if possible. For some migraine sufferers, certain foods such as aged cheese, red wine, some types of beer and cured meats can trigger headaches as these foods are all high in an amino acid called tyramine, so avoiding these foods (if it triggers your headache) can help. If strong scents are your trigger, avoid highly scented products and see if your workplace will go scent-free. Drinking enough water to avoid dehydration, taking breaks from computer work so you're not staring at a screen all day, getting enough sleep and exercise, eating healthy, consistent meals, reducing stress, limiting alcohol and caffeine can all help to reduce the frequency of headaches.

Not every headache requires medication. Depending on your headache type and cause, treatments can include stress management techniques or counseling, biofeedback, massage therapy, acupressure/acupuncture, using ice or heat, avoiding excessive sun or heat, meditation, stretching, resting in a quiet, dark room or getting some fresh air by going for a walk. Sometimes though, you need to take something to relieve the pain once you've exhausted all other options. Consult your primary health care provider to determine the best course of action for you, especially if you have any underlying conditions.

If you’re getting headaches more than 14 days out of the month over a span of three months, you might have a chronic headache condition. You should see your primary health care provider to determine what might be wrong, even if you’re able to manage the pain with over the counter pain killers or muscle relaxers. As headaches can be a symptom of more serious health conditions, some do require treatment beyond over the counter medications and home remedies.

The good news for headache sufferers is that you have the option of choosing from many different kinds of treatment. If your first treatment plan doesn’t work, try another. Your primary health care provider can recommend other treatments and plans of action to find the right solution for you.

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