You’re sitting at your desk and you start to notice it — the tightening in your shoulders, the pounding on the left side of your head, or the pain behind your eyes. While headaches are very rarely life threatening, they do have the power to put a damper on your quality of life — especially if you’re a chronic sufferer. And the numbers are staggering. According to the National Headache Foundation, more than 45 million Americans live with chronic headaches.
So as a sufferer, how do you know what type of headache you’re dealing with, how best to treat it, and when there may actually be a bigger problem?
Headache pain results from signals interacting between the brain, the blood vessels, and the surrounding nerves. During a headache, specific nerves of the blood vessels and head muscles are activated and send pain signals to the brain. It’s not clear, however, why these signals are activated in the first place, and often the source of our headaches remains a mystery.
According to Ocala neurologist Dr. Jose Gaudier, females are three times more likely to suffer from migraine headaches than males.
“Migraines are by far the most common headache complaint in the United States,” he says. “About 18 percent of females and six percent of males suffer from migraine headaches.”
While many patients have different symptoms, one of the most common characteristics of a migraine is pain that begins on one side of the head.
“It’s a pulsing, throbbing pain,” Gaudier says. “There may also be an intolerance to light (photophobia) or sound (sonophobia). A migraine is a headache that tends to build up and become more intense over time and it’s often associated with an increase in nausea.”
For many people suffering from migraines, the headache can last from several hours to several days and can occur many times in one month. The exact causes of migraines are unknown, although they are related to blood vessel contractions and other changes in the brain as well as inherited abnormalities in certain areas of the brain. According to the National Headache Foundation, migraines affect more than 29 million Americans.
As for how they’re treated, it varies by patient. For the chronic sufferer, prescription medications may be necessary. It may also be necessary to know what triggers a migraine for you. Common triggers include diet, stress, environment, strong odors or perfumes, emotions, and hormonal fluctuations. With proper diagnosis and treatment, migraine headaches can be effectively managed.
For those suffering from an occasional migraine attack, try over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol or Advil first.
“I do warn against using over-the-counter medications on a regular basis, though,” Gaudier says. “If you’re having to take the medication often to control your headaches, then it’s time to make an appointment with a headache specialist.”
In addition to over-the-counter remedies, migraine sufferers should also get plenty of rest and relaxation.
“One of the best things you can do for a migraine is rest in a dark, quiet, cool space,” Gaudier says. “This is especially true for child sufferers.”
Other lifestyle adjustments to help lessen the occurrence of migraines (and other headaches) include eating three, well-balanced meals a day at set times and maintaining an exercise program to relieve stress and improve overall health.
“Often a drop in blood sugar from not eating can trigger a headache,” Gaudier says. “Simply by keeping your body on a schedule, you may be able to prevent a headache from occurring.”
Muscle Contraction (Tension) Headaches
We are an on-the-go society, filled with overworked, overstressed people. One of the most common ways our bodies fight back is to produce physical tension in our bodies. Nearly all of us have experienced a tension headache in our lifetime.
“Unlike a migraine, the pain is normally felt all over your head, and often in the back of the head,” Gaudier says. “It’s a tight, squeezing pain rather than a pounding pain.”
As universal as tension-type headaches are, their causes and symptoms are very widespread. The word “tension” can be misleading, too, because not all headaches are caused by what we normally perceive as “tension” or “stress.”
Physicians describe two types of tension headaches: episodic and chronic. Generally, episodic headaches occur randomly and are often the result of temporary stress, anxiety, fatigue, or anger. Other causes include eyestrain and neck or back strain due to poor posture.
For those suffering from episodic tension headaches, like migraines, they can often be treated through lifestyle adjustments such as proper diet, stress management, and exercise. Over-the-counter analgesics are also helpful.
Chronic headaches on the other hand occur almost daily and should be assessed by a medical professional. A pattern of chronic tension-type headaches generally begins between the ages
of 20 and 40, and people of every personality type and socioeconomic level can experience them. Often, physical problems, psychological issues, or depression are the cause of chronic tension headaches.
Sinus headaches are associated with a deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. The pain usually intensifies with sudden head movement or straining and usually occurs with other sinus symptoms, such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the ears, fever, and facial swelling.
When a sinus cavity becomes inflamed, usually as the result of an allergic reaction, an infection, or environmental factors, the inflammation will cause localized pain.
“Often sinus headaches can be associated with dental problems such as TMJ or more rarely, ocular problems,” Gaudier says.
Sinuses are filled with air, and their secretions must be able to drain freely into the nose. If your headache is truly caused by a sinus blockage, such as an infection, you will probably have a fever. A doctor can easily confirm a sinus blockage. Your physician’s treatment might include antibiotics for the infection, as well as antihistamines or decongestants.
If you do not have a true sinus headache and take decongestants, they could make your headache worse.
“Putting slight pressure on your forehead may also help relieve the pain associated with a sinus headache,” Gaudier says. “The same holds true for other types of headaches as well.”
Sufferers can also try a hot steam shower, or placing a hot, moist compress across their eyes to relieve pain.
Headaches in women are often associated with changing hormone levels that occur during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. Chemi-cally-induced hormone changes, such as taking birth control pills, can also trigger headaches in many women. Women suffer from migraines three times more frequently than men do; and menstrual migraines affect 70 percent of these women. They occur before, during, or immediately after the period, or during ovulation.
While it is not the only hormonal culprit, serotonin is the primary hormonal trigger in everyone’s headache. But, for women, it is also the way the serotonin interacts with uniquely female hormones. Menstrual migraines are primarily caused by estrogen, the female sex hormone that specifically regulates the menstrual cycle fluctuations throughout the cycle. When the levels of estrogen and progesterone change, women will be more vulnerable to headaches. Because oral contraceptives influence estrogen levels, women on birth control pills may experience more menstrual migraines.
Cluster headaches are probably the least common and most severe form of headache. The pain can be excruciating, almost knife-like, and normally centers around one eye or in the eye region and doesn’t change sides. The pain is so severe that most cluster headache sufferers cannot sit still and will often pace during an attack.
Attacks can occur daily in clusters of weeks or months, and then disappear completely for months or years. Ninety percent of those who suffer from cluster headaches are male, and most are between the ages of 20 and 30.
Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if you think you have cluster headaches.
An organically caused headache is not a disease itself; but rather a symptom of another disease or disorder. Organically caused headaches are evidence of infection, high blood pressure, diseases of the brain, eye, ear, or nose, blood clots, and aneurysms to name a few. These conditions can be life threatening, so immediate evaluation by a doctor is recommended. Rarely, (less than five percent of the time according to the National Headache Foundation) organic headaches are caused by benign or malignant tumors. Fortunately, these types of headache are less common than primary headaches.
Some signs that the headache is related to a serious disorder include a sudden, sharp, intense, or severe pain (particularly if you never or only occasionally have a headache), sudden lack of balance or falling, confusion, inappropriate behavior, seizures, or difficulty speaking. If these symptoms are left undiagnosed, they can lead to serious consequences.
Rebound headaches occur in patients whose persistent headache pain causes them to overuse headache medications. Taking too much medication may actually make symptoms worsen instead of improve. Make sure to see your doctor if you are taking the maximum recommended doses without any relief.
The percentage of the population that suffers from migraine headaches.
The percentage of adults who will experience a tension headache in their lifetime.
The number of recognized headache categories.
The number of Americans who suffer from chronic headaches.
Number of work days missed each year collectively by migraine sufferers.
Source: headaches.org migraininformation.org