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Headache: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Headaches
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What is a Headache?

A headache is defined as a pain arising from the head or the upper neck of the body. It is one of the most common afflictions in life, with up to 90 percent of people reporting symptoms at some point in their lives. It can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age and race. Reports claim that at least 7 in 10 people have at least one headache each year (x).

Most headaches, other than being painful and bothersome, do not signify anything serious. However, some are signals of more serious health conditions and require immediate medical attention. Estimates show that 45 million Americans have severe headaches that can make it difficult to perform normal daily activities (x).

Headaches can occur in different parts of the head — on one or both sides of the head, or in just one location of the face or skull. They can also involve the whole head. The pain can be constant, mild, intense, sharp, throbbing or a dull ache. They are often triggered by allergies, stress, fatigue, nutritional deficiencies and alcohol or drugs. They can also result from a medical disorder like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and migraines. Headaches are often associated with symptoms like vomiting and nausea, watery eyes and nasal congestion (x).

Some remedies that can relieve headaches include posture correction, herbs, vitamins and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

Types of Headaches

There are many ways to define a headache. The International Headache Society (HIS) categorizes them as primary (where they are not caused by an underlying condition) or secondary (when an underlying condition exists).

Primary headaches mostly result from over-activity or issues with structures in the head that are pain-sensitive. They include nerves of the head and neck, muscles and blood vessels. The common primary headaches are tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches occur when a wide range of different factors stimulate the pain-sensitive nerves in the head. These factors include blood clots, brain tumors, dehydration, concussion, alcohol-induced hangovers, stroke and overuse of pain medication (rebound headaches).

Tension Headache

Tension headaches (or stress headaches) are most common among teenagers and adults. They occur in 3 of every 4 adults (x). They also tend to occur more in women than in men.

Tension headaches cause mild to moderate pain and they occur infrequently. They typically last for 30 minutes to several hours; however, they can also span over several days in some cases, and they can be either episodic or chronic. The pain is described as constricting, pressing or tight pain on both sides of the head. Tension headaches are often related to poor posture, anxiety, eye strain, stress and depression (x). They can be treated with pain killers like paracetamol and acetaminophen. A short nap, warm shower or light snack can also help (x).

Migraines

These are the second-most common type of primary headache after tension headaches. They occur less than tension headaches, but tend to be more severe (x). Migraines are described as throbbing and pounding pain usually on one side of the head. They affect both children and adults.

Migraines last from 4 hours to 3 days and can occur one or more times a month. Other symptoms that accompany the pain are nausea, blurry vision, lightheadedness, loss of appetite and sensitivity to light. Children’s migraines have symptoms like vomiting. Migraines are triggered by fatigue, oversleeping or lack of sleep, emotional stress and sensory triggers such as loud noises and strong smells. Migraines can be treated with OTC medication, but in some severe cases, strong prescription medication may be required (x). The severity of a migraine can prevent people from performing their normal daily activities. They are ranked as the sixth-highest cause of time lost due to disability worldwide by WHO (x).

Cluster Headaches

These are the least common, but most severe headaches. They occur almost exclusively in males as they occur five times more in men than women (x). Cluster headaches usually cause intense, sharp or burning pain and have a pattern of occurring in ‘clusters’ almost at the same time of the day for weeks. Each attack can last for 15 minutes to 3 hours. They can disappear completely even for years only to occur later. They are described as deep, excruciating and constant, always located on one side of the head especially around one eye. The pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as a runny or blocked nose and watery eyes.

Cluster headaches can occur in anyone but are most common in middle-aged men with a history of smoking. They are common in men in their late 20s, but can also affect women and children. Cluster headaches can be treated using pharmacy medications, but other treatments can be used to prevent future occurrences (x).

Rebound Headaches

These types of headaches result from discontinuation of certain medications. A person will most likely suffer from rebound headaches if he or she takes medications like acetaminophen, ergotamine and painkillers such as codeine and Tylenol.

Sex Headaches

Sexual intercourse can trigger headaches. They are often initiated by any sexual activity that leads to orgasm. Men may experience dull pain that intensifies as sexual excitement rises or severe attacks known as orgasmic headaches. They can be prevented by taking NSAID an hour before intercourse (x).

Symptoms of a Headache

Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Vertigo
  • Stroke
  • Tight sensation in the head
  • Dizziness
  • Pain

Causes of a Headache

Headaches are caused by a combination of pain-sensitive muscles in the head and nerve signals originating from the blood vessels. Common triggers are:

Hormone Imbalance

Fluctuating hormone levels in women illustrate common causes of menstrual migraines and chronic headaches. These hormonal changes mainly occur during pregnancy and the menstrual cycle. They can also be caused by oral contraceptives. Estrogen, a chemical in the brain that affects the sensation of pain, is the main contributor to these headaches (x).

Caffeine Withdrawal

Caffeine is probably the world’s most consumed psychoactive substance. It acts as a nervous system stimulant that boosts alertness while reducing fatigue (x). Eliminating caffeine from the diet can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches 12-24 hours after stopping it. Caffeine makes blood vessels in the brain constrict, which lowers blood flow. When a person stops taking caffeine, the blood vessels open up and allow for increased blood flow to the brain. This abrupt change in blood flow leads to painful withdrawal headaches that vary in severity as the brain tries to adapt to an increase in blood. When consumed on its own, caffeine helps to enhance the power of pain killers and reduce pain (x).

Codeine

Drugs like codeine contain opioids and can worsen headaches. Taking too much pain medicine can result in a condition known as Medication overuse headache (MOH). When the dose starts wearing off, the pain returns, making people take more. This overuse makes the medication stop relieving the pain and eventually start causing headaches (x, x).

High Blood Pressure

Hypersensitive crisis (blood pressure reading 180/120 mm HG) cases can cause a headache (x). Since this is considered a medical emergency, it is imperative to seek help from qualified medical personnel.

Eye Strain or Back Strain

Eye strain occurs when the eyes become tired from intense use, such as staring at a computer screen. This can also result from inadequate or excessive lighting. It causes a mild but not pounding headache.

Allergies

Sinus and migraine headaches are linked to allergies. Exposure to allergens triggers the immune system to release certain chemicals. These can cause inflammation in the body, which then trigger migraines. Histamine produced by the body can cause vasodilation, which may result in a headache (x).

Stress

Emotional stress is a common cause of migraines. Daily stress, such as workplace pressures can cause chronic tension headaches. During stressful situations, the brain releases certain chemicals to combat the events. These chemicals cause vascular changes, which can cause pain. Emotions associated with stress, such as fatigue, anxiety and worry can lead to dilated blood vessels and increased muscle tension, which worsen migraines (x).

Headaches Causes

Headache Treatment

The most common forms of headache treatments are rest and pain relief medications. Since most are not indicators of serious medical conditions, they are often treated with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin.

Alternative treatments include hypnosis, acupuncture, meditation and cognitive behavior therapy. However, research does not fully validate these methods.

Supplements for Headaches

Butterbur Extract Powder

Extract from butterbur shrub may lower the frequency at which migraines happen, according to the National Institute of Health (x). Take 150 mg of butterbur extract powder daily with plenty of water or as directed by a physician. This extract powder should be taken for 3-4 months before gradually lowering the dose. If symptoms reappear after lowering the dosage, gradually increase again. A milligram scale is necessary for accurate measuring.

Magnesium

Many consider this one of the best and most successful remedies for headaches. Magnesium infusions are used in patients with severe migraines to reduce their headaches. Too much consumption of magnesium can cause diarrhea, but lowering the dose helps to avert this problem. Dietary sources of magnesium are vegetables like broccoli, whole grains, nuts and beans.

Peppermint Oil and Lavender Oil

According to research, peppermint oil increases blood flow on the forehead and also soothes muscle contractions. It may also lower headache sensitivity in tandem with ethanol (x). As a dietary supplement, take 700 mg (around 1/3 tsp) of peppermint extract powder once or twice daily, or as directed by a physician. Studies indicate that lavender oil is an effective and safe treatment for migraines (x). It can be used by rubbing on the forehead and back of the neck.

Omega-3 Fish Oils

A study done by the University of Cincinnati showed a decreased frequency and severity of migraine attacks. Omega-3 fish oils is present in high concentration in fish like herring, trout, salmon and mackerel (x).

Feverfew

This herb can help lower the occurrence of migraines. However, more scientific research is necessary to determine its health benefits. One study has shown that feverfew can be effective in the prevention of migraine headaches and does not have any major side effects (x). As a dietary supplement, take 500 mg (scant 1/4 tsp) of feverfew extract powder daily or as directed by a physician.

Melatonin

It is suggested that melatonin powder be taken in single serving size between 1 mg and 3 mg before bedtime.

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)

Riboflavin is famous for having headache-reducing components. As a dietary supplement, take 50 mg of riboflavin (vitamin B2) powder once or twice daily, or as directed by a physician. A milligram scale is ideal for accurate results.

How to Prevent a Headache

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Avoiding excessive caffeine consumption
  • Avoiding diet-related triggers
  • Undertaking manual therapies like massage and chiropractic
  • Regular exercise
  • Staying hydrated
  • Moving around and stretching
  • Getting enough rest

These suggestions simply show that good health practices are better headache prevention practices.

The Bottom Line

There are four main forms of headaches — migraine, cluster, tension and sinus. These headaches have a wide array of causes including hormone imbalance, allergies, illnesses, aspartame and eye, neck and back strain. Some remedies that you can use to control and treat headaches include exercising, taking pain relievers, having adequate rest and sleep and staying hydrated. Plus, you can also use supplements like feverfew, omega-3 fish oils, melatonin, peppermint oil and lavender oil.

About the author

Dennis Njeru


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