Headaches: What You Need to Know
A headache is the most common type of disorder related to the nervous system. There are many different types of headaches which can range between functional and debilitating.
A headache is considered to be any type of pain coming from the scalp, forehead, or neck. The pain can also originate from behind the eyes or sinuses.
It’s possible to be afflicted by multiple types of headaches at different times or at the same time, so knowing the differences between them can be valuable when seeking treatment.
Defining a Headache
Pain arising from the head or upper neck can be classified as a headache. The sensation of pain is felt in the nerves, so the manifestation of that pain is felt in the surrounding tissues of the skull and neck region.
The pain from a headache can be sharp, dull, throbbing, radiating, or constant. Because the brain doesn’t have nerve endings, the soft tissue surrounding the skull, vertebrae, eyes, and sinuses can all be affected.
What Causes Headaches?
Many different things can cause a headache. Structures that support the head and neck can become inflamed, irritated, or infected.
Trauma, disease, muscle stiffness, and stress can all play a part. Knowing what causes headaches can help to identify an underlying cause. Among the most common causes is muscle tension.
This occurs when certain muscles remain contracted or semi-contracted for a period of time. The cause of muscle tension is often stress. Headaches that arise from muscle tension can also be related to fatigue, lack of sleep, excessive exercise, depression, or grief.
Headaches can also be caused by infections, head injuries, or migraines. Outside influences such as smoking, alcohol, drugs, or environmental poisons can also bring about headaches.
Types of Headaches
As medical professionals gain a better understanding of headaches, there is a general consensus forming around how to categorize different types of headaches.
The International Headache Society and our own organization recognize these two major types of headaches:
: These types of headaches include migraines, headaches from exertion, cluster headaches, tension headaches, coughing or sneezing headaches, and cold-induced headaches. Headaches derived from sexual activity also fit this category.
: Headaches in this category can be related to emerging disorders like an aneurysm, brain tumor, brain inflammation, head trauma, neuralgia, or meningitis.
Primary headache disorders are the most common form of headache with tension headaches taking up the bulk of these. The World Health Organization estimates one in 20 people in the developed world experience tension headaches daily, and their research is showing the same trend in the developing world.
Headaches that occur regularly can begin to impact the quality of life in sufferers as more and more time is spent away from both work and leisure pursuits in attempts to quell the pain.
Most tension headache symptoms involve constant pressure or muscle tension around the sides of the head or the back of the neck.
Most people experience some form of tension headache from time to time, but some sufferers experience daily bouts that can become chronic. The range of pain can be mild to severe and can range from short to long.
These headaches are often very severe but on the shorter side. Those who suffer from cluster headaches report bouts ranging from 30 to 45 minutes, but they can happen a few times a day for some people. Luckily these types of headaches are rare and seem to affect mostly men in their 20s.
Migraines are one of the most studied types of headache disorders because of the level of medical care required to treat them. While considered a type of primary headache, a migraine is really in a class of its own.
Often, migraines cause severe pain and affect the entire body. Symptoms sometimes include visual disturbances, numbness, nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity. Migraines can last from a few hours to a few days. They are further broken down into these two classes:
Migraine with Aura
: An aura often precedes the actual migraine attack. It involves seeing shapes, light distortions, and flashes. Sometimes vision is temporarily lost, and speaking is hindered.
Migraine without Aura
: The actual attack is not preceded by an aura, but there are often pre-headache symptoms that involve excessive yawning, fatigue, irritability, depression, and neck stiffness. These pre-headache symptoms can also affect those with aura.
Secondary headaches are considered to be part of a more broadly focused health issue that pertains to the head or neck. The headaches can be signs of an underlying medical condition that has yet to be diagnosed, or they could just be symptoms of a known medical condition.
Infected teeth and dental pain that cause headaches belong in this category, as do headaches caused by sinus infections. Sometimes the condition is more serious, such as a meningitis infection or possible brain tumor. Headaches involving substance abuse fall into the secondary headache category as well. This includes the infamous “hangover headache.”
Working with a doctor or headache specialist on a treatment plan should first involve a proper diagnosis by understanding the patterns of symptoms involved with different types of headaches. Identifying an underlying cause through a careful understanding of the patient’s history can be the most important part of creating a course of treatment.
A healthcare professional should ask questions around location, duration, type, and feel of the headache. Special attention should be made about any additional symptoms that accompany the headache. Family and medication history should be involved in the diagnosis.
General Headache Treatment
Usually, the best course of treatment for general headaches is to rest, drink plenty of water, and take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.
A massage can often help, as can neck stretching and using a cold compress. For the most common headaches, this basic treatment seems to work. For more serious, chronic headaches and migraines, a more rigorous treatment plan can be required.
Since migraines are so much more debilitating than most other headaches, health professionals have several tests that can help confirm a migraine diagnosis.
These involve thorough physical evaluations, but imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans that can rule out a secondary headache can cause a tumor, stroke, or Chiari malformation.
Unfortunately, migraines are not curable, but there are several effective medical treatments available that are based on specific patient circumstances and conditions.
A class of drugs called Triptans can help to prevent symptoms. The list of remedies that can help alleviate the worst symptoms of migraine pain can be found on here.
Secondary Headache Evaluation
Since secondary headaches can sometimes be caused by serious medical conditions, thorough evaluations should be sought. These involve blood tests, medical imaging, or lumbar punctures.
Those with confusion, stiff neck, high fever, and light sensitivity should seek medical help immediately since these are the primary symptoms of meningitis, which can be deadly if left untreated.
Don’t Suffer Alone — Contact the National Headache Institute Today!
You can be suffering from a new type of headache, or maybe you are just trying to figure out why you keep getting the same headaches week after week. There is help available for you to find the underlying cause and find treatment.
Contact The National Headache Institute to set up a plan today. We are here to help.