According to Medicinenet.com, the head is one of the most common areas where individuals experience pain. While many different types of head pain exist, headaches are probably the most common type of head pain.
What is a headache? A headache includes pain in the head or upper neck, and since the brain has no nerves that cause pain, headache pain comes from the structure and tissues surrounding the brain. Headache pain can vary, depending on the type of headache, and this pain may be intense, sharp, mild, constant, throbbing, or a dull ache.
The NHS estimates that 10 million people deal with headaches in the UK alone. While headaches are a common complaint, they are usually easy to treat. Here’s a closer look at common types of headaches, what causes headaches, how to get rid of a headache, and information on when you need to see a doctor about your headaches.
Two Types of Headaches
Before looking closer at what causes a headache, it’s important to understand the two different types of headaches. The two types of headaches include:
- Primary Headaches – Primary headaches do not occur because of an underlying disease. They usually occur due to the muscles in the neck or head, the blood vessels or nerves in the head, or chemical activity inside the brain. According to Patient.co.uk, primary headaches account for 90% of reported headaches. The common types of primary headaches include:
- Tension Headaches – A tension headache is the most common type of headache, and HateHeadaches.org estimates that 80-90% of individuals will deal with a tension headache at some point in their life. What causes tension headaches? The exact cause of these headaches is unknown, but multiple factors may play a role in developing a tension headache, such as stress, eye strain, muscle tension, lack of stress, or skipping meals.
- Migraine Headaches – Approximately 16-17% of individuals deal with migraine headaches, which are more debilitating than most other headaches. Migraines usually result in an intense pulsing or throbbing in one part of the head. The pain is often accompanied by sensitivity to sound and light, vomiting, and nausea. Hormonal changes, stress, certain foods, changes in sleep patterns, medications, and sensory stimuli may cause migraines.
- Cluster Headaches – Cluster headaches are very rare, and these headaches usually occur in a cluster or cyclical pattern. These headaches include extremely intense pain on one side of the head or around one eye. Frequent attacks of these headaches, called cluster periods, can last weeks or months. Experts are currently unaware of the exact cause of these types of headaches, and these headaches are usually not associated with any triggers.
- Secondary Headaches – According to the Mayo Clinic, secondary headaches occur as a symptom of another disease that may be activating the nerves within the head. Different types of secondary headaches may include:
- Spinal headaches
- Rebound headaches
- Thunderclap headaches
- External compression headaches
- Sinus headaches
- Acute headaches
- Hormone headaches
- Inflammatory headaches
What Causes Headaches?
The cause of a headache can vary greatly, depending on the specific type of headache. Here’s a look at some of the causes of headaches.
- Causes of Tension Headaches – The exact cause of tension headaches is unclear. In the past, researchers believed that muscle contracts in the scalp, neck, and face caused headaches or that increased tension or stress caused the issue. However, today experts believe that individuals who get tension headaches have a heightened sensitivity to stress and pain. Stress is still considered a common trigger for these headaches, even though it may not be the cause.
- Causes of Migraines – Doctors believe that environmental factors and genetics play a big role in migraines. It’s also thought that migraines may be caused by changes in how the brainstem interacts with the trigeminal nerve. Imbalances in certain brain chemicals may also cause migraines. Studies do show that 85% of migraine sufferers report that they have triggers that trigger migraines.
- Causes of Cluster Headaches – Individuals who experience cluster headaches may wonder, what causes headaches every day? Unfortunately, no one is quite sure why these headaches occur, although it is thought that hypothalamus abnormalities may contribute to this problem.
- Causes of Secondary Headaches – Some of the causes of secondary headaches may include:
- Blood clot
- Acute sinusitis
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Ear infection
- Dental problems
- Brain aneurysm
- Panic attacks
How to Get Rid of Headaches
Figuring out how to get rid of a headache can be difficult. Treatments and alternative therapies differ, depending on the type of headache. According to Headache.com.au, headaches are the most commonly reported illness, and 15% of Australians take medications to treat headaches. Who can use medications to treat headaches, but they’re only one treatment option to consider. Here’s a look at treatment options and alternative therapies that can treat different types of headaches.
- Tension Headache Treatments
- Relaxation training
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Migraine Headache Treatments
- OTC medications (such as Excedrin Migraine)
- Rest in a dark, quiet room
- Reduced intake of caffeine
- Cold or hot compresses to the neck and head
- Prescription medications (such as Relpax or Imitrex)
- Cluster Headache Treatments
- Injectable medications for fast relief (such as Dosepro, Sumavel, or Imitrex)
- 100% oxygen inhalation
- Preventive medications
- Prescription triptan nasal sprays (such as Imitrex or Zomig)
Home Remedies for Headaches
In some cases, it’s possible to treat a headache at home without medication. The following home remedies may provide headache relief without the use of medication:
- WebMD recommends applying ice packs to the area of your head that is painful. You can apply ice to the back of the neck, the temples, or the forehead.
- Try taking a hot bath or a shower.
- Gently apply rotating pressure to the area of the head that is painful. Maintain the pressure for 7-15 seconds. You can repeat this treatment as needed.
- Try massaging your back and neck, or have someone else massage the back and neck for you.
- Lie down in a dark, quiet room. Close your eyes and focus on releasing the tension in your shoulders, back, and neck.
- Try keeping a headache diary. Write down what you were doing when the headache occurred and the foods you consumed before the headache occurred. Keeping a headache diary may help you figure out what triggers your headaches.
- Avoid oversleeping. While getting enough sleep can help prevent headaches, too much sleep can cause headaches.
In some cases, headaches may be symptoms of serious medical conditions. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to figure out what causes headaches, so it may be a good idea to see a physician. Make sure you see your doctor if you begin dealing with headaches that:
- Keep you from participating in normal life activities, such as sleeping or working.
- Start happening more frequently.
- Get worse or do not improve when you use OTC or prescription medications.
- Seem to be more painful than usual
In some cases, a headache may signify that you are dealing with a serious medical problem that needs to be taken care of quickly, such as encephalitis, stroke, or meningitis. If you ever have the worst headache you’ve ever had, or a severe headache occurs suddenly, Mayo Clinic recommends that you go to your local Emergency Room for immediate care. You also should seek emergency care if you experience a headache that is accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Difficulty seeing
- Problems walking
- Weakness, paralysis, or numbness on one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking
- Stiff neck
- Extremely high fever
- Vomiting or nausea