Headaches: Causes, types, and treatment

Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints; most people experience them at some point in their life. They can affect anyone regardless of age, race, and gender.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost half of all adults worldwide will experience a headache in any given year.

A headache can be a sign of stress or emotional distress, or it can result from a medical disorder, such as migraine or high blood pressure, anxiety, or depression. It can lead to other problems. People with chronic migraine headaches, for example, may find it hard to attend work or school regularly.

Causes

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Headache is a common complaint worldwide.

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.

The International Headache Society (IHS) categorize headaches as primary, when they are not caused by another condition, or secondary, when there is a further underlying cause.

Primary headaches

Primary headaches are stand-alone illnesses caused directly by the overactivity of, or problems with, structures in the head that are pain-sensitive.

This includes the blood vessels, muscles, and nerves of the head and neck. They may also result from changes in chemical activity in the brain.

Common primary headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are symptoms that happen when another condition stimulates the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. In other words, the headache symptoms can be attributed to another cause.

A wide range of different factors can cause secondary headaches.

These include:

alcohol-induced hangover

brain tumor

blood clots

bleeding in or around the brain

“brain freeze,” or ice-cream headaches

carbon monoxide poisoning

concussion

dehydration

glaucoma

teeth-grinding at night

influenza

overuse of pain medication, known as rebound headaches

panic attacks

stroke

As headaches can be a symptom of a serious condition, it is important to seek medical advice if they become more severe, regular, or persistent.

For example, if a headache is more painful and disruptive than previous headaches, worsens, or fails to improve with medication or is accompanied by other symptoms such as confusion, fever, sensory changes, and stiffness in the neck, a doctor should be contacted immediately.

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Eating something very cold can lead to a “brain freeze.”

Tension headaches are the most common form of primary headache. Such headaches normally begin slowly and gradually in the middle of the day.

The person can feel:

as if they have a tight band around the head

a constant, dull ache on both sides

pain spread to or from the neck

Tension-type headaches can be either episodic or chronic. Episodic 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

sensory disturbances known as auras

Migraine is the second most common form of primary headache and can have a significant impact on the life of an individual. According to the WHO, migraine is 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

reduced sleep quality

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