I have headaches. In fact, I am having one right now. People who don’t experience this often blow it off. Okay, so it isn’t a severed limb or the flu but it isn’t pleasant for the person with the pain.
My mother had severe migraine headaches when I was growing up. They would ruin several days when we had plans for things. She had to be in a quiet and dark room. She would cry out in pain. I hated seeing her go through it. My doctor recently diagnosed me with migraine headaches. Although not as severe as what my mother had, it is still nothing fun.
So what are headaches?
A headache is pain that is experienced in the head and can be a sign of stress or emotional distress, or it can result from a medical disorder. A headache can occur in any part of the head, on both sides of the head, or in just one location. There are different ways to define headaches.
There are more than 300 types of headaches but only 10% have a known cause. Let’s take a look at the most common headaches.
Common types of headaches
Tension headaches: The most common form of primary headache. Such headaches normally begin slowly and gradually in the middle of the day. A person experiencing a tension headache can feel as if they have a tight band around the head, a constant, dull ache on both sides or pain spread to or from the neck. They can can either be sporadic or chronic. Sporadic attacks are usually a few hours in duration, but it can last for several days. Chronic headaches occur for 15 or more days a month for a period of at least 3 months.
Migraines: A migraine headache may cause a pulsating, throbbing pain usually only on one side of the head. The aching may be accompanied by blurred vision, light-headedness, nausea and/or sensory disturbances. Migraines are the second most common form of primary headache and can have a significant impact on the life of an individual. Migraines are the sixth highest cause of days lost due to disability worldwide. A migraine can last from a few hours to between 2 and 3 days.
Rebound headaches: Rebound or medication-overuse headaches stem from an excessive use of medication to treat headache symptoms. They are the most common cause of secondary headaches. They usually begin early in the day and persist throughout the day. They may improve with pain medication, but worsen when its effects wear off. Along with the headache itself, rebound headaches can cause neck pain, restlessness, a feeling of nasal congestion and/or reduced sleep quality.
Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches usually last between 15 minutes and 3 hours, and they occur suddenly once per day up to eight times per day for a period of weeks to months. In between clusters, there may be no headache symptoms, and this headache-free period can last months to years. The pain caused by cluster headaches is one-sided, severe, often described as sharp or burning and/or typically located in or around one eye. The affected area may become red and swollen, the eyelid may droop, and the nasal passage on the affected side may become stuffy and runny.
Sinus headaches: causes pain over the forehead, around the nose and eyes, over the cheeks, or in the upper teeth. Stooping forward increases the pain. Thick nasal discharge, congestion, and fever pinpoint the problem to the sinuses. When the acute infection resolves, the pain disappears. Sinusitis is not a common cause of chronic or recurrent headaches.
Thunderclap headaches: These are sudden, severe headaches that are often described as the “worst headache of my life.” They reach maximum intensity in less than one minute and last longer than 5 minutes. A thunderclap headache is often secondary to life-threatening conditions, such as intracerebral hemorhage, cerebral venous thrombosis, ruptured or unruptured aneurysms, reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RVS), meningitis, and pituitary apoplexy. People who experience these sudden, severe headaches should seek medical evaluation immediately.
How to treat headaches:
The most common ways of treating headaches are rest and pain relief medication. For me, I want to sit in a quiet room after taking pain medication and “ride it out”. Sometimes putting an ice pack on my neck helps the recovery process. My doctor also suggested that I start taking B2 vitamins. I have but I haven’t really seen any change in the frequency of my headaches. I assume that it takes a while until I feel the effect.
When I feel a headache coming on, I usually take headache medication immediately. Then, depending on the severity of the headache, I will slow down my activity. If it’s really bad, I will turn off some lights if possible.
So when should you worry about a headache as a symptom of something more?
You can take care of many types of headaches by yourself, and your doctor can give you medication to control most of the tougher headaches. But some headaches call for prompt medical care. Here are some warning signs for when you should worry about headaches:
- Headaches that first develop after age 50
- A major change in the pattern of your headaches
- An unusually severe headache
- Head pain that increases with coughing or movement
- Headaches that get steadily worse
- Changes in personality or mental function
- Headaches that are accompanied by fever, stiff neck, confusion, decreased alertness or memory, or neurological symptoms such as visual disturbances, slurred speech, weakness, numbness, or seizures
- Headaches that are accompanied by a painful red eye
- Headaches that are accompanied by pain and tenderness near the temples
- Headaches after a blow to the head
- Headaches that prevent normal daily activities
- Headaches that come on abruptly, especially if they wake you up
- Headaches in patients with cancer or impaired immune systems
So as you can see, it isn’t “just” a headache. Usually people who respond to your pain in that way have never experienced a true headache. It is difficult to explain how debilitating a headache can be. When I experience a headache, I just feel out of sync. It’s just an extra effort to get through the day of work. Trust me, we will get through it just give us some time.