Headaches: Different Types, Causes, and How to Treat Them

Headaches: Different Types, Causes, and How to Treat Them

Headaches is what most persons can relate with.

It is a feeling of discomfort accompanied by pains in the scalp, neck, or head. The pain can be mild, moderate, or severe. Severe headaches can affect your productivity at work.

Not less than seven out of every ten persons will experience at least a headache in a year.

Not less than 45 million Americans have been reported to have experienced headaches that were really disabling.

Most of these headaches can be managed with medications and lifestyle changes.

Types of headaches

Headaches can be divided into three types – cluster headaches, tension headaches, and migraines.

1. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are defined by a sensation of burning on one side of the head. It can also be felt just behind the eyes. When they affect the eyes, they can result in the tearing up of the eyes and congestion of the nasal passages. The pains associated with cluster headaches are non-throbbing but really painful. Cluster headaches can last for as long as 6 weeks. Their frequency of occurrence can be once or more than once a day. A cluster headache doesn’t have a specific cause.

Cluster headaches mostly affect the male population especially those between age twenty and forty. It is rare anyways.

The Director of the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Dr. Stephen D. Silberstein, M.D., has submitted that alcohol consumption can induce a cluster headache.

Tension Headache

2. Tension Headaches

Tension headaches happen to be the most common especially in the women population.

Women who are older than 20 years are more susceptible. People who have this headache describe it as ‘a feeling of a tight band around their head’. This feeling of tightness is due to the tightening of the muscles found in the scalp and head. Stress and bad body posture can also trigger tension headaches.

Tension headaches can last for several minutes. In other instances, it can last for many days. They are recurrent in nature.


3. Migraines

Migraines are not just the most severe types of headaches but the most complex ones. They can disable the people that are affected and have been listed as one of the ten top disabling sicknesses in the world. Some researchers think that changes in certain nerve pathways, neural activities, and brain chemicals are responsible for them.

Genetics and environmental changes have also been suspected to trigger migraines.

Migraines are typically pain intensive, throbbing and affect just a part of the head. Their lifespan is between several hours to days. Migraines also make you more sensitive to noise and light.

Incidence and Types of Migraines

The Migraine Research Foundation has found that about 1 in every 4 families in the United States will have someone who is suffering from migraine.

  • Adolescent boys are more likely to have migraines than their girl counterparts.
  • Women are more susceptible than men. It can run in the family.

Migraine headaches are of two types – migraine with aura and migraine without aura.

  • Auras are disturbances that affect vision. These disturbances usually come 30 minutes before the migraine occurs. When the disturbances set in, they can last for 15 minutes. They consist of flashing lights, moving lines or bright spots. They can cause temporary vision loss in some instances.
  • Migraines with auras are not as severe and disabling as those without auras.
  • Majority of the people who experience migraines have those without auras.

Another type of migraine exists. It is called hemiplegic migraine.

  • Hemiplegic migraines mimic symptoms of stroke. 
  • The percentage of occurrence of hemiplegic migraines in the American population is 0.03%. Their occurrence can be very dangerous.
  • Typical symptoms of hemiplegic migraines are numbness and weakness in one part of the body.
  • Slurred speech is another symptom of hemiplegic headaches.

Migraine Phases

Migraines occur in three phases:

  1. Prodrome
  2. Peak headache
  3. Postdrome

Prodrome is a warm up for peak headache. Auras can occur here. It can alter mood, concentration and appetite. You might find yourself yawning frequently during this phase.

Peak headache is that time when the symptoms of migraine are very severe. It can last for a couple of minutes.

Postdrome occurs a day after the day you had migraine. It is usually signaled by drowsiness and mood fluctuations. You are in between being sad and being happy.

Migraine Triggers

Migraine doesn’t really have an exact cause. Notwithstanding, some factors can induce it. A look at some:

  • Pubertal fluctuations in hormonal levels in boys and girls
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Cured meat
  • Aged cheeses
  • Fruits like citrus, bananas, and avocados
  • Pickled and fermented foods
  • Skipping meals
  • Excessive sleep and sometimes a lack of it
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Bright and sometimes strong lights
  • Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure mostly because of changes in the weather
  • Drinking alcohol

Dangerous symptoms of headaches

Headaches are not always symptoms of a life-threatening disease. Notwithstanding, certain headaches should be paid serious attention to especially if you have recently had head trauma. Endeavor to see your doctor if a headache coexists with any of the following symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Facial numbness
  • Drowsiness
  • Convulsions
  • Weak legs or arms
  • Confusion

When you feel pressure around your eyes which is accompanied by a sore throat and a greenish-yellow nasal discharge, you should go for a medical evaluation immediately.

Evaluating headaches

Evaluating headaches

Headaches can be caused by different conditions. Stress, diseases, infections etc. are common causes of headache. When you have one, especially a headache that keeps reoccurring, you will have to meet your doctor to evaluate what is actually responsible for the headache.

In order to evaluate your headache, your doctor will take cognizance of your medical history. Medical history is important because it can reveal to your doctor what could have likely caused your headache. As a part of your medical history, you will be asked questions about any medications you have currently been on. 

When you suddenly stop taking some medications, you can develop serious headache. Certain foods when withdrawn can also induce headache. An example is coffee. If you are ‘seriously’ into drinking coffee, you can have headaches when you suddenly stop drinking it.

As part of your evaluation, your doctor will also make you go through certain physical examinations. The examinations will be focused more on your neurological functions.

More tests can also be performed on you in order to evaluate the cause of your headache. These tests are:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) – It can reveal the presence of infections.
  • Skull X-rays – It is used to show in detail, the structures in your head.
  • Sinus X-rays – It is used to check your sinuses especially when your doctor suspects that you have sinusitis.
  • Head CT or MRI scans – These are also imaging tests that your doctor can use to capture and view the structures inside your head including the presence of blood clots. You will undergo either of these imaging tests if you have a stroke, trauma, etc.
Hot bath

Treating headaches

To treat headaches, their causes must first be deciphered. Headaches can be caused by so many factors. If for instance an illness you have is the cause of the headache, the headache can only be treated when the illness has been treated. In fact, the treating of the illness is the ‘going away’ of the headache.

But headaches that are not always a result of an illness can be treated with over-the-counter medications (OTCs) like ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen.

When medications fail to treat the headache, other alternatives can be resorted to.

  • Biofeedback – It is a technique that enables you to manage pain by relaxing.
  • Stress management tutorials can be taken. These tutorials will techniques on how to ease tension from stress.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – In cognitive behavioral therapy, you are engaged in talking sessions. The goal is to help you recognize and avoid stress triggers.
  • Acupuncture – Fine needle is applied on mapped out areas on your body. This therapy can alleviate much of your pain and is effective for stress management.
  • Exercise – Mild or moderate exercise can release substances in the brain that can ease tension and make you feel excited and relaxed.
  • Cold or hot therapy – An ice pack (cold therapy) or a heating pad (hot therapy) can be placed on your forehead and allowed to stay for about 5-10 minutes. This can be done several times a day.
  • Hot bath – Taking a hot shower or bath can help your muscles to relax. When your muscles are relaxed, you are relaxed.

When you have headaches three or more times a month, you can take medications that can prevent them from reoccurring. One very good example of such medication is Sumatriptan. It is very good for migraine headaches.

The following are also good for preventing chronic migraine or cluster headaches:

  • Topiramate
  • Beta-blockers (e.g. atenolol, propranolol)
  • Dihydroergotamine
  • Methysergide maleate (a blood vessel dilator)
  • Amitriptyline (an antidepressant)
  • Verapamil (e.g. calcium channel blocker)
  • Valproic acid (an anti-seizure medication)
  • Lithium

You should discuss with doctor about medications that can help you experience relief from headaches.

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