Headaches: A Deep Dive

Almost all of us have experienced headache pain. A minor headache is a nuisance relieved with an over-the-counter pain reliever, caffeine or a short rest. Severe or unusual headaches, however, can signal a more significant issue. While headaches are rarely a cause for concern, you should know when to seek urgent care and how to manage common headaches.

What Causes headaches?

Doctors don’t fully understand what causes most headaches, which are often characterized by pain in different areas of the head. Primary headaches occur on their own without any other symptoms, while secondary headaches accompany another health condition like an infection, high blood pressure, stroke, etc.

What are examples of primary headaches?

A tension type headache (TTH) is the most common primary headache. TTH causes head pain that commonly occurs across both sides and the front and back of the head. During a TTH, your entire head may feel pain. Those affected by TTHs may sometimes ignore episodes because the pain tends to be mild to moderate, not aggravated by daily physical activity, and doesn’t cause disability. TTHs may become a chronic (long-term) issue that leads to complications such as, sleep disruption, jaw muscle disorders and anxiety.

A migraine is a type of primary headache that is characterized by intense pounding, pulsing pain or pressure that can last for hours or even days. Pain usually begins in the forehead, the side of the head, or around the eyes. Movement, activity, bright light, or loud noise makes the pain worse. Nausea and vomiting are common during migraines as well as dizziness, brain fog, fatigue, and irritability. Migraines are a spectrum condition, so some people have infrequent, mild attacks, while others have more severe, frequent episodes.

How can I manage and treat headaches?

Your provider may recommend keeping a “headache diary” to identify lifestyle triggers that lead to headaches or migraines. Sometimes we can determine that headaches occur regularly after coffee or wine consumption, lack of sleep, exposure to excess light, etc. If this is the case, adjusting your habits can decrease headaches.

The following lifestyle changes can improve headache health:

  1. Avoid certain foods. Alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses and other foods can trigger a tension headache or migraine.
  2. Eat regular, balanced meals. Incorporate fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats into a balanced diet to decrease headaches. Don’t skip meals! Hunger can trigger headaches.
  3. Establish a sleep schedule. Regular sleep can strengthen our immune system, keep depression and anxiety at bay and promote relaxation. Go to bed and wake up at the same time ever day as poor sleep habits can trigger a headache.
  4. Exercise often. Exercise can reduce headache symptoms. Incorporate aerobic, strengthening and flexibility exercises into your routine.
  5. Practice good posture. Poor poster like hunching over a computer, can strain your head, neck and shoulders and lead to headaches. Check you poster throughout the day.
  6. Reduce your stress. Many headaches are triggered by stress. Knowing how to handle stress and prevent it, can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.
  7. Avoid other common triggers including bright lights, strong smells, etc.

During more severe attacks, over-the-counter medication can help. If taken early enough, a simple painkiller like Motrin or Tylenol can ease pain.

Migraines often require specific medications, called triptans. There are several triptans available. Speak with your provider about which one will work best for you. Please note: triptans should not be taken more than 10 days in a month as overuse can aggravate the brain.

When should I be concerned?

Most headaches are common and can be treated with pain relivers and lifestyle changes.   However, some headaches call for prompt medical attention. If you experience any of the following, seek medical care right away:

  • An unusually severe headache, potentially causing one to wake up from sleep
  • Headaches that are accompanied by fever, stiff neck, confusion, decreased alertness, memory or neurological symptoms like visual disturbances, slurred speech, weakness, numbness or seizures
  • Changes in personality or mental function
  • Headaches following head trauma
  • Headaches that are accompanied by eye pain

Remember, most headaches are a common part of life. If you are currently experiencing regular headaches or have any concerns or questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider today.