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Headaches: What you should know

Updated: Mar 14, 2021



Headaches are a common problem of modern day society. However, there are more and more people who suffer from headaches almost every day of their lives and are unable to find relief. These people come to rely on pain pills. The result, all too often, is that they become addicted to their medication. Headache is like any other condition - if you know what you have and what causes it, you have a better chance of dealing with it.


TYPES OF HEADACHES

There are basically three types of headaches:

• Headaches caused by specific diseases

• Vascular or circulation related headaches

• Muscular contraction or tension headaches


HEADACHES CAUSED BY SPECIFIC DISEASES

It must be stressed that these are the least common of headaches. The cause of the headache could be something as simple as an infection or allergy or as complicated as a tumour. Fortunately, very few people have headache due to serious disease. However, to be safe, a severe headache on a regular basis or recurrent headaches should be checked by your physician.


Infections of the ear or even the gums and teeth can cause headache; however, there is usually also pain in the specific area of the infection. The sinus headache is probably the most common headache caused by an infection. An infection of the linings of these air spaces can put pressure on the surrounding nerves and cause a headache. Remember that pain in the maxillary sinus (under the eyes) can often feel like a toothache. Meningitis can cause headache but this very serious disease also causes fever, chills and stiffness of the neck, particularly when one tries to touch the chin to the chest.

Neuralgias are pain and headache associated with specific nerves. The pain is intense and comes and goes. There is usually a trigger point that, when touched or irritated, causes the pain. Glaucoma is caused by a rise in pressure inside the eye. There is usually a dull and one-sided eye pain that seems like headache. The affected eye will be blood-shot and the cornea will look cloudy. Vision is blurred and there is a halo around lights. Glaucoma is treated with medication.


There are other medical conditions that cause headache but are not common. The reason that you should be aware of headaches caused by specific diseases is not to alarm you, but to emphasize that headaches that are severe or occur regularly or frequently should be checked by your physician who can order appropriate tests. The most common diagnostic tool for unexplained severe headaches is a CAT scan. If a CAT scan is negative then it is highly unlikely that the headache is caused by an underlying disease.

The next step for your physician will be to determine which of the other 2 categories your headache falls into.


VASCULAR OR CIRCULATION-RELATED HEADACHE

The next, more common, types of headaches are those that are caused by some change in the blood circulation of the head and neck. Generally, people are most familiar with migraine headaches. The exact cause isn’t known but they are triggered by a constriction and then expansion of the blood vessels of the head.


Although extremely painful, migraines cause no long-lasting medical complications.

Women are affected more than men and they often start at puberty, but can begin at any age. Migraines are usually preceded by a prodrome - a warning that one is coming on. The migraine sufferer usually sees an aura of bright light and has a feeling of numbness and difficulty talking. The headaches are usually one-sided and throbbing. They are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting and bright lights are intolerable. The use of birth control pills has been linked to more frequent migraines. Migraine sufferers can often identify triggers for their migraines. Foods such as cheese, nuts, chocolate and red wine can start a migraine.

With new medications available, your physician can help you manage migraine headaches. Don’t confuse migraine headaches with tension headaches, which can be just as severe. Tension headaches don’t have the prodrome, or warning signs, and they don’t respond to standard migraine medications. Migraine sufferers should also be aware that a tension headache can trigger a migraine and make it worse.

Hypoglycemic headaches are caused by a drop in the level of sugar in the blood from going too long without food. People who regularly suffer from this type of headache usually have to eat frequent small snacks during the day.

Temporal arteritis is a disease in which the artery in the area of the temple becomes inflamed. This condition affects women 4 times more than men and usually occurs in people over 50 years old. In these cases the headache is a burning, throbbing headache in the area of the temple.

Cluster headaches can be as severe as migraines but are rarer and most often occur in middle-aged men.With cluster headaches there is tearing of the eyes, nasal congestion and the forehead usually gets flushed.They are called cluster headaches because they can occur 3 or 4 times a day and last a few minutes or a few hours.


TENSION HEADACHES OR MUSCLE CONTRACTION HEADACHES

These are, by far, the most common headaches. Some experts estimate that 75% of headaches are tension headaches. Although medically considered as simple headaches they can be very intense, frequent and very difficult to treat. Stress or injuries are the most common factors in tension headaches.


Once all other causes of your headaches have been ruled out, you can assume that you are suffering from tension headaches. The pain can be severe and is most often constant in intensity with a feeling of tightness or pressure. It can be one side or both sides and can start in the neck and upper back or anywhere in the head.


Because the muscles of the head and neck are inter-connected, a problem in one area can cause a headache in another muscle group. In tension headaches of the forehead, 85% have been found to originate in the back of the neck.


People who have had neck or back injuries often complain of tension headaches, but treating the head pain without treating the injury is usually unsuccessful.


One of the most common contributing factors for tension headaches is clenching and grinding the teeth because of stress. This problem usually requires a visit to your dentist who can fabricate a bite plate that will prevent the chewing muscles from going into spasm and causing pain. Clenching and grinding and imbalances of the chewing muscles and problems with the jaw joint are either the main problem or contributing factors in most tension headaches.


Severe tension headaches usually require treatment for more than one problem. Often a person being treated for a jaw problem needs treatment for neck muscle spasm in order to control the tension headaches.


Massage and relaxation therapy are often helpful as well as improvement in posture and work habits.


THE HEADACHE DIARY

Remember that most headaches are manageable. They are not necessarily something to accept and try to live with. The most important thing that you can do is keep a headache diary. This is a record of factors that result in a headache and is valuable so that your physician and, if necessary, your dentist, can help you.

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