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A Closer Look at Headaches

But not all headaches are the same, and some can be very serious. Instead of just dismissing a headache as an annoyance, it’s important to understand the different types of headaches and what you can do about avoiding or treating them.

Tension headaches are by far the most common type of headache, and affect most teens and adults at least occasionally. Stress is a common cause, but fatigue, poor posture, eye strain, alcohol, and even caffeine can all be triggers as well. Tension headaches generally cause mild to moderate pain that is often described as dull pressure or tightness on the sides of the head. These headaches can last from 30 minutes to several hours or even days, and may be accompanied by fatigue. An over-the-counter pain reliever may help with mild and infrequent headaches, but if you suffer from painful headaches that interrupt your work, or occur once a week or more frequently, you need to see a doctor. He or she may order imaging tests to rule out serious causes such as tumors, and may prescribe other pain relievers or muscle relaxers to help alleviate the pain. Rest, ice packs, and hot showers may also offer some relief – and even keep a headache from getting worse.

Migraine headaches affect more than 10% of all adults in the U.S., and approximately 2% of the population suffers from chronic migraine – which is defined as 15 or more headaches per month over a three-month period. Migraines can start during the teen years, and are more likely to strike adults before age 55. The pain can be moderate to severe and throbbing, and unlike a tension headache, the pain is often located on just one side of the head. A migraine can last from a few hours to several days, and may be accompanies by nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to light, sound or smell. Many people experience warning symptoms such as flashes of light or tingling on one side of the face or in one arm or leg prior to the onset of a migraine. The exact cause of migraine isn’t known, but genetics, imbalances in brain chemicals, hormonal fluctuations, and environmental factors including stress, alcohol, and some foods can all play a role. If you have symptoms of chronic migraine, see a doctor. There are several effective medications that can help you manage pain or even prevent migraine if taken when symptoms first appear. A sudden, severe migraine, particularly if accompanied by fever, confusion, weakness, or numbness is an emergency that requires immediate medical evaluation and treatment.

Cluster headaches are rare and affect just one out of a thousand adults in the U.S. They are more common in men than women, and generally start before the age of 30. These types of headaches generally last for 15 minutes to just a few hours, but the pain can be severe and disabling. They tend to strike in cyclical patterns or clusters – with cluster periods lasting from four to six weeks. They usually strike without warning, and often occur in the middle of the night. The pain tends to center around one eye, and can be accompanied by redness or tearing in one eye, pale skin, and swelling or drooping around the affected eye. The intense pain tends to subside as quickly as it comes on, but can leave you exhausted. Cluster headaches are not generally life-threatening, but if you have just experienced your first cluster, or if the pattern of occurrence changes, see your doctor. Fast acting prescription medication (generally requiring self-injection) can provide some pain relief, and certain other medications, including calcium channel blockers and corticosteroids can help prevent them from occurring or reduce the frequency of the clusters. As with other types of headaches, if the pain is more severe than usual, or is accompanied by a stiff neck, confusion, difficulty speaking or numbness, seek emergency treatment.


This article first appeared in the October 2018 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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