Information on the causes of headaches, constant painful or chronic headaches.
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- What are Headaches?
- Diagnosing Headaches
- What Causes Headaches?
- Help for Headaches
- More Information on Headaches
What are Headaches?
A headache is a characterized by aching pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, face or neck. Most headaches occur biologically outside the skull in the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles that surround the head and neck. When the muscles or blood vessels swell, they put pressure on the nerves. The nerves in turn send pain messages to the brain, and the individual suffers from a headache.
Headaches are a very common medical ailment and can have a profound effect on people’s working and personal lives. Research shows that seven in ten people have at least one headache a year, and approximately forty-five million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. While some people have headaches frequently, others may seldom have them. Often, people who suffer from headaches simply need to make a few lifestyle changes to avoid them.
The pain can be mild or severe, and can occur occasionally or frequently. While the vast majority of headaches are not life-threatening, they can occasionally be due to a more serious underlying cause, such as a tumor or stroke. The most common types of headaches include tension, migraine, and cluster headaches.
Primary versus Secondary Headaches
Primary headaches are not associated with any underlying medical condition. There are three types of primary headaches: tension (muscular contraction headache), migraine (vascular headache), and cluster.
- Tension headache: Tension headaches are very common, and almost everyone experiences this type of headache. A tension-type headache is as a result of the head and neck muscles contracting. Causes are often associated with stress, fatigue, anxiety, poor posture, and eye strain.
- Migraine: A migraine is an intense, throbbing pain, usually limited to one side of the head, sometimes spreading to both sides. It occurs when the blood vessels of the head and neck constrict, which results in decreased blood flow to the vessels. Migraines are recurrent. In most cases they last for a few hours, but can continue for up to three days. People suffering from migraines are usually very sensitive to light and have a low auditory tolerance for noise.
- There are two types of migraine: migraine with an aura (a group of visual symptoms) and migraine without an aura. They are more common in women than men and, and although much more common in adults, they can also occur in children. The underlying cause of migraines it is not clear, and it is likely that there are a variety of causes which differ from person to person. There is evidence to suggest that triggers may include foods like chocolate, citrus fruit, cheese, caffeine, some preservatives, and other food additives.
- Cluster: Cluster headaches are recurrent, painful attacks which occur, as the name suggests, in clusters. Typically they occur at least once a day over a period of weeks or even months. They then tend to disappear for a lengthy period and can recur again at a later stage. They are caused by an increase in blood flow due to the widening of the blood vessels in the brain. Cluster headaches are less common than a tension headache or migraine. It is more common in men than in women.
Secondary headaches are associated with an underlying medical condition such as sinus disorders, head injury, tumor, stroke, infection, hypoglycemia and cerebrovascular disease. If you have a headache that does not go away, is present on waking in the morning, is made worse by lying down, or is accompanied by any other symptoms, it is always best to consult your doctor for a check-up.
A thorough physical examination will be performed if your doctor suspects an underlying disorder is causing the headaches. Questions regarding the frequency, duration, location, symptoms and triggers of the headache will all help your doctor to determine how serious your headache is.
Depending on the severity of the headache, you may be referred to a neurologist for further tests:
- Cranial CT (computerized tomography) scan
- Cranial MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
- Sinus X-rays
- EEG (electroencephalogram)
- Artery biopsy
- Lumbar puncture
What are the symptoms of headaches?
- Pain in the head
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hearing impairment
What Causes Headaches?
There are a number of contributing factors which may cause headaches. Some may be due to hunger and dehydration, while others may be due to severe illnesses such as meningitis or tumors.
The common causes and triggers of day to day headaches include:
- Emotional stress
The constriction of blood vessels or the tightening of facial and scalp muscle when feeling negative emotions can all result in decreased blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which can lead to a headache.
- Illnesses: Sinus infections, eyestrain, vision problems, allergies, dental infections, grinding and clenching of teeth, viral infections, urinary tract infections, and head injuries can all cause headaches.
- Insomnia: The lack of sleep or sleep disorders can cause muscle tension, which can lead to headaches.
- Food sensitivities: Chocolate, caffeine, dairy products, food additives like nitrates, nitrites and monosodium glutamate are well-known headache triggers
- Skipping meals: Irregular meals and fad diets can lower blood sugar levels and give you a headache. Dehydration is also a common cause of headaches.
- Alcohol & drugs: The consumption of alcohol, prescribed medication, cocaine, amphetamines, and diet pills can lead to headaches.
- Rebound headaches: Regular use of some painkillers may result in a rebound headache once the painkiller begins to wear off. Headaches may also occur during withdrawal from addictive substances such as drugs, caffeine, and prescription medication.
- Other factors: Glare, poor lighting conditions, physical exertion, and chemical sensitivities also causes headaches.
When Should I Worry?
Warning signs that should concern you include:
- A headache with symptoms of numbness, speech difficulty, and one-sided weakness – this may be signs of a stroke.
- A sudden onset of a headache as well as symptoms of a fever and stiff neck – these may be signs of meningitis.
- An extremely painful, headache, possibly the worst you’ve ever had – this may be associated with an aneurysm and possible rupture.
- A headache that worsens over time (particularly if neurological symptoms are displayed) may be indicative of a space occupying lesion in the brain such as a tumor or an abscess.
If you are at all concerned about the nature of your headaches, their frequency or any accompanying symptoms, it is imperative that you see your health care practitioner for a full examination and check up.
Help for Headaches
Generally, over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen are widely used to alleviate symptoms. If you suffer from chronic headaches, your doctor will more than likely prescribe medication such as antidepressants, beta-blockers, and calcium channel-blockers to prevent headaches before they occur.
While these conventional medications do reduce the pain, they are heavy-strength medications, and can produce harmful side effects and the risk of addiction. Always research side effects, potential for addiction, and alternatives available before deciding on a treatment plan.
Alternative therapies can be used to help manage headaches safely, without the risk of addiction, including:
- Biofeedback and relaxation therapy
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Herbal remedies
Can Headaches Affect Children?
Children are affected by the same type of headaches as adults and they are also often hereditary. Generally, headaches occur in children because they have spent too much time in the sun, stayed up too late, or they have knocked their heads. If your child experiences recurring headaches and symptoms of vomiting, seizures, blurred vision, or fever, a doctor should be consulted immediately.
Most headaches can be easily treated at home by teaching your child to breathe deeply, lying down in a quiet, dark room or by placing a cool cloth across the forehead. A child younger than the age of twelve should never be given aspirin (salicylic acid).
More Information on Headaches
Tips to Avoid Headaches
Adopting a few simple lifestyle changes can help you to avoid getting headaches:
- Eat a healthy diet filled with fruit and vegetables, and do not skip meals for too long.
- Drink plenty of water to keep the body hydrated.
- Exercise regularly to improve your circulation
- Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, hands-on-healing, and therapeutic touch to reduce the intensity of a headache.
- Keep a headache journal to document each headache – how long it lasts and when it happened and what triggered it, to discuss with your health care professional.
- Apply an ice pack to your forehead and temples or a heat pack to the back of your neck to loosen tense muscles.
- Soak in a hot tub; the hot water helps to relax the contracted muscles that cause the headache.
- Spend time outside in the fresh air or go for a walk on the beach.
- Limit alcohol consumption and increase water intake.
- Limit hours spent in front of a computer screen.
- Avoid watching television for too long or in a dimly-lit room.
- Try to get a good night’s rest.