Headaches

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Headaches refer to a painful sensation in any part of the head, ranging from sharp to dull, that may occur with other symptoms including vision changes, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, rash, confusion, slurred speech, fever, paralysis in any part of the body. Headaches may vary in their cause, duration, and intensity and can vary according to the type of headache.

Many of us are familiar with some form of the throbbing, uncomfortable, and distracting pain of a headache.

There are different types of headaches which include:

  1. Primary headaches:

Primary headaches occur when the pain in your head is the condition. In other words, your headache is not being triggered by something that your body is dealing with, like illness or allergies.

These headaches can be episodic or chronic.

  • Episodic headaches may occur seldomly or ever so often and can last anywhere from minutes to several hours.
  • Chronic headaches are more consistent and occur most days of the month and can last for days at a time. In these cases, a pain management plan is necessary.

There are different types of primary headaches which include:

  • Tension headaches: you may feel a dull, aching sensation all over your head that is not throbbing. Tenderness or sensitivity around your neck, forehead, scalp, or shoulder muscles may occur.  Tension headaches are often triggered by stress.

  • Cluster headaches: characterised by severe burning and piercing pain and occur around or behind one eye or on one side of the face at a time. Sometimes swelling, redness, flushing, and sweating can occur on the side that is affected by the headache. Nasal congestion and eye tearing also often occur on the same side as the headache.  These headaches occur in a series and can last from 15 minutes to a few hours. Most people experience one to four headaches a day, usually around the same time each day, during a cluster. After one headache resolves, another will soon follow.

  • Migraine headaches: an intense pulsing and throbbing pain from deep within your head which can last for days and significantly limits your ability to carry out your daily routine. Migraine sufferers are often sensitive to light and sound. Nausea and vomiting also usually occur. Migraines may be preceded by visual disturbances known as aura (kaleidoscope, flashing or shimmering lights, zigzag lines, stars, blind spots).  Auras can also include tingling on one side of your face or in one arm and trouble speaking. It is important to be aware that the symptoms of a stroke can also mimic a migraine, so if any of these symptoms are new to you, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Certain environmental factors like sleep disruption, dehydration, skipped meals, some foods, hormone fluctuations, and exposure to chemicals are common migraine triggers.

2. Secondary headaches:

Secondary headaches are a symptom of something else that is going on in your body and can become chronic. Treating the primary cause generally resolves the headache.  Common secondary headaches include:

  • Allergy or sinus headaches: due to an allergic reaction or something affecting the sinus area.  Sinus headaches are treated by thinning out the mucus that builds up and causes sinus pressure.A sinus headache can also be a symptom of a sinus infection and may require a doctor to prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection and relieve your headache and other symptoms.

  • Hormone headaches: Women commonly experience these headaches and may be due to hormonal changes or medications.  These headaches are commonly associated with the menstrual cycle and can occur right before, during, or right after menses, as well as during ovulation.

  • Caffeine headaches: Caffeine affects blood flow to your brain and having too much can give you a headache, as can quitting caffeine.  If you’re used to exposing your brain to a certain amount of caffeine each day, you might get a headache if you don’t get your caffeine fix as caffeine can change your brain chemistry, and withdrawal from it can trigger a headache.

  • Exertion headaches: occur quickly after periods of intense physical activity like weight lifting, running etc.  It’s believed that these activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, which can lead to a throbbing headache on both sides of your head. These headaches do not last long and resolves within minutes to a few hours.

  • Hypertension headaches: High blood pressure can result in headaches and usually signals an emergency. This occurs when your blood pressure becomes dangerously high. These headaches will usually occur on both sides of your head and is typically worse with any activity. It often has a pulsating quality and you may also experience changes in vision, numbness or tingling, nosebleeds, chest pain or shortness of breath.  Hypertension headaches typically go away once blood pressure is controlled. 

  • Rebound headaches: also known as medication overuse headaches, can feel like a dull, tension-type headache or they may feel more intensely painful, like a migraine. You are more susceptible to this type of headache if you frequently use over the counter pain relievers.

  • Post-traumatic headaches: can develop after any type of head injury and these headaches feel like migraine or tension-type headaches, and usually last up to 6 to 12 months after your injury occurs. They can become chronic.

Headaches may have several different causes too.  It is important that if headaches are persistent, chronic, debilitating or you have any concerns – then see your doctor, pharmacist, or optometrists for proper investigations, diagnosis and management of this condition.

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