Just another headache?

There are a lot of aches and pains we’ve learn to just put up with day to day, all too often allowing them to become our “new normal”. Headache pain is not so easy to ignore, and can have a serious impact on our ability to function physically and emotionally.

A minor headache may not seem like a big deal, after a tablet or two it magically goes away, or maybe even just some food, water, coffee, or a short rest. But a severe headache can be pretty debilitating, and it’s good to know when a headache needs urgent care and what you can do to control the vast majority of them.

There are reportedly more than 300 types of headaches, but only about 10% of headaches have a known cause.

When is it more than just a headache?

Most headaches you can probably manage by yourself, and your doctor can give you medication to control most of the tougher ones. But then there are those that you just can’t seem to manage, and nothing seems to help. Chances are it’s still nothing to be anxious about, but it’s good to be aware of some warning signs for when there maybe something more sinister at play:

  • •    Headaches that first develop after age 50
  • •    A major change in the pattern of your headaches
  • •    An unusually severe “worst headache ever”
  • •    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 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

If you’re headaches fit into any of the above categories, it is well worth the effort to chat to your doctor about it to not only manage the headaches, but ensure there isn’t a deeper issue that needs addressing.

Some types of headaches might you experience

The most common of all headaches is a tension related headache. In most cases, they aren’t too bad, and don’t occur that often. But some people do get severe tension headaches, and can have them multiple times a week.

Typically tension headaches produce a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. People with strong tension headaches may feel like their head is in a vice. The shoulders and neck can also ache. Some tension headaches are triggered by fatigue, emotional stress, or problems often arising from poor ergonomics involving the muscles or joints of the neck or jaw. Most last for 20 minutes to two hours.

If these are frequent for you, try to identify triggers so you can avoid them. Don’t get overtired or skip meals, drink plenty of water. Learn relaxation techniques; make sure your ergonomics are set up right. Stretch and move more to allow increased blood flow.


Migraines occur less often than tension-type headaches, but they are usually much more severe. Women are two to three times more likely to have a migraine than men.

Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in the brain’s blood flow and nerve cell activity. Knowing your family history is such an important tool in understanding our health, as genetics play a role with migraines as well, with 70% of migraine sufferers having at least one close relative who’s also had the problem.

Triggers - Although a migraine can come on without warning, it is often set off by a trigger. The things that set off a migraine vary from person to person, but a migraine sufferer usually remains sensitive to the same triggers.  Things as simple as changing weather: rising humidity, heat, lack of sleep or oversleeping, or emotional stress.

Sensory triggers such as bright or flickering lights, loud noises, strong smells can also set off a migraine, along with dietary triggers such as missing a meal, alcohol, especially red wine, chocolate, nitrates in cured meats and fish, aged cheese, or an increase or decrease in caffeine.

In most migraine cases, the pain is on one side of the head, often beginning around the eye and temple before spreading to the back of the head. The pain is frequently severe and is described as throbbing or pulsating. Nausea is common.

Without effective treatment, migraine attacks usually last for four to 24 hours. When you’re suffering a migraine, even four hours is far too long, which is why early treatment is so important.

Treatment - If you spot a migraine in its very earliest stages, you may be able to control it with non prescription pain relievers. If these are common, you need to work out a treatment strategy with your doctor. Work with your doctor to find the method that works best for you. Remember, though, that overuse can lead to rebound headaches and a vicious cycle of drugs and headaches.

Prevention - Some people can prevent migraines simply by avoiding triggers. Others do well with prompt therapeutic response for occasional attacks. But patients who suffer frequent attacks often benefit from preventive medications. Again, this should be part of your strategy of managing migraines that you develop with your doctor.

Some “other” headaches:

Medication headaches - Many drugs list headaches among their side effects. And although it seems self defeating, many medications used to treat headaches can also cause medication overuse headaches or rebound headaches.

Sinus headaches - Acute sinusitis 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.

Ice cream headaches - Some people develop sharp, sudden headache pain when they eat anything cold. The pain is over in less than a minute, even if you keep eating. If you are bothered by ice cream headaches, try eating slowly and warming the cold food at the front of your mouth before you swallow it.

Exercise - Sudden, strenuous exercise can bring on a headache. Gradual warm-ups or treatment with an anti-inflammatory medication before exercise can help.

Living with headaches

For most of us, an occasional headache is nothing out of the ordinary and no real cause for alarm. Even so, some basic lifestyle adjustments may be able to help prevent them altogether, better ergonomics, hydration, sleep patterns, and stress management.

But for some, headaches are a much bigger problem. If that’s you. work with your doctor to develop a program to prevent and treat migraines and other serious headaches. Don’t fall into the trap of overusing pain killers, only to find it leads to a viscous cycle of more headaches.

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