What is a Headache?
Headache is defined as pain arising from the head or upper neck of the body. They can be caused by inflammation or irritation in any number of tissues including those surrounding bones, muscles that encase your skull and eyes as well as sinuses. Some people experience pain which is sharp, while others may feel dull aches more commonly associated with it.
A headache is a very common condition that causes pain and discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. It can sometimes be mild, but in many cases, they can cause severe pain that makes it difficult to concentrate at work and perform other daily activities.
It is important to know what kind when symptoms appear because each has different treatments available depending on how severe they are felt.
Classification of Headaches
There are three major categories of headache based upon the source of the pain.
Cranial neuralgia, facial pain, and other headaches
Primary headaches include migraine, tension, and cluster headaches, as well as a variety of other less common types of headaches.
- Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache and occur more commonly among women than men. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 20 people in the developed world suffer with a daily tension headache. It is also known as “stress headaches.” Muscle contractions cause tension headaches in the head and neck regions.
- Migraine headaches are the second most common type of primary headache. Migraine headaches affect children as well as adults. Before puberty, both boys and girls are affected equally by migraine headaches, but after puberty, more women than men are affected. Migraine disorder is often associated with intense, frequent, and debilitating headache pain.
- Cluster headaches are generalized headaches caused by nerves in the face, scalp, and temples. Its name is derived from the fact that they tend to occur in clusters or groups. It is said to be the most painful among the other types.
Secondary headaches are those that are due to an underlying structural or infectious problem in the head or neck. These headaches are related to another medical condition, such as:
- Disease of blood vessels in the brain.
- Head injury.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Medication overuse.
- Sinus congestion.
Traumatic headaches fall into this category, including post-concussion headaches.
This group of headaches also includes those headaches associated with substance abuse and the excessive use of medications used to treat headaches. “Hangover” headaches fall into this category as well.
Neuralgia means nerve pain. Cranial neuralgia describes inflammation of one of the 12 cranial nerves coming from the brain that control the muscles and carry sensory signals (such as pain) to and from the head and neck.
Causes of Headaches
Headache pain results from signals interacting among the brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves. During a headache, an unknown mechanism activates specific nerves that affect muscles and blood vessels. These nerves send pain signals to the brain.
Migraine headaches are caused by inflammation or irritation of structures surrounding the brain or affecting its functionality. While the brain itself has no pain nerve fibers, everything else above the shoulders, from the neck, skull, and face, can cause a person to have head pain. Systemic illnesses, including infection or dehydration, can have an associated headache known as a toxic headache.
Changes in circulation and blood flow or trauma, and brain chemistry can also cause headaches. Medication reactions, drug abuse and drug withdrawal can all cause pain.
Headaches may be caused by a number of conditions, such as disorders of the:
Symptoms of headaches requiring medical attention
- A new, severe headache
- A headache that is associated with neurological symptoms like:
- Sudden loss of balance or falling
- Numbness or tingling
- Speech difficulties
- Mental confusion
- Personality changes/inappropriate behavior, or
- Vision changes (blurry vision, double vision, or blind spots)
- Headache with a fever, shortness of breath, stiff neck, or rash
- Headache pain that wakes you up at night
- Headaches with severe nausea and vomiting
- Headaches that occur after a head injury or accident
- Getting a new type of headache after age 55
Treatment for headaches
One of the most crucial aspects of treating headaches is figuring out your triggers. Once you know your triggers, your healthcare provider can tailor treatment to you. Counseling and stress management techniques can help you handle this trigger better. By lowering your stress level, you can avoid stress-induced headaches.
Not every headache requires medication. A range of treatments is available. Depending on your headache type, frequency and cause, treatment options include:
Stress management teaches you ways to cope with stressful situations. Relaxation techniques are helpful in managing stress. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mental imagery and music help ease tension.
Biofeedback teaches you to recognize when tension is building in your body. In this course, you learn how your body responds to stressful situations and how to calm it down. During biofeedback, sensors are connected to your body.
Occasional tension headaches usually respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers. Be aware that using these medications too often can lead to a long-term daily headache.
For frequent or severe headaches, your provider may recommend prescription headache medications.
A treatment plan is important for chronic headache sufferers.
The main treatment plan categories used to manage headaches include:
- Rescue: What to do at the first sign of a headache
- Prevention: Treatments aimed at keeping headaches from developing
- Lifestyle modification: Strategies to identify, modify, and eliminate triggers that can contribute to headache
- Complementary medicine strategies
- Inpatient care
How can you prevent headaches from happening?
The key to preventing headaches is figuring out what triggers them. Triggers are very specific to each person — what gives you a headache may not be a problem for others. Once you determine your triggers, you can avoid or minimize them.
- Applying heat or cold packs to your head.
- Doing stretching exercises.
- Massaging your head, neck or back.
- Resting in a dark and quiet room.
- Taking a walk.
A headache is a common health problem that can range from mild to debilitating. The classification of headaches ranges from tension type, migraine, and cluster headache. There are many causes for headaches such as stress, viral illness or fever; however the most prevalent cause in people under the age of 50 years old is due to eyestrain. Headaches may also be caused by muscle spasms in your neck or back muscles, which we call cervicogenic pain disorder (CPD). Your doctor will evaluate you and identify if there’s any structural concerns like an infection, vascular disease or tumor pressing on nerves inside your skull.