From lifestyle factors to an underlying condition, the reason for your headache could be easy to figure out. However, knowing the answer to your headache doesn’t always mean it’s easy to fix. We list the most common types of headaches you may encounter, broken down by primary and secondary headaches. Do you know the difference? Keep reading to find out!
According to the Mayo Clinic, a primary headache isn’t caused by any co-existing illness or condition. Instead, there’s an overactivity of the nerves and pain receptors in the brain or perhaps overly dilated blood vessels. Some people are at higher risk for primary headaches due to family history.
Stress or Tension-Type Headaches
The National Headache Foundation reports that most headaches can be traced to stress or tension. These primary headaches feel different for each person and may be resolved by removing the stressor, changing your reaction to it, or with various stress coping strategies. Over-the-counter medications are usually quite effective as well. If tension headaches become chronic, your healthcare provider may decide to treat them with an antidepressant or antianxiety medication.
Migraine presents with intense headache symptoms but is a more serious neurological condition. Symptoms can include pain with light, sound, and movement or visual disturbances like auras. These severe headaches are debilitating, lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days, and should be treated by an experienced provider or neurologist to manage symptoms.
Sharp pain on one side of the head around (or behind) the eye is the most recognizable sign of a cluster headache. They typically begin around age 30 and are more likely to affect men than women. Not as much is known about cluster headaches, although episodes last up to several hours and can recur as often as multiple times per day. These headaches usually present with similar symptoms each time.
Lack of Sleep
While there is no definitive research linking sleep and headache, there are many presumptive theories that medical professionals have leaned on for years. Low melatonin levels are one such theory, as there’s a strong correlation between melatonin supplements and migraine prevention. The hypothalamus is the same part of the brain responsible for both sleep and regulating pain, strongly linking sleep and primary headache symptoms. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus, helps to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Too Much Caffeine or Caffeine Withdrawals
The Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation describes what happens when we consume caffeine. You may get a severe headache when drinking caffeine because the blood vessels dilate, causing a rush of blood to your brain. Then, once you don’t have that same level of caffeine, you’ll experience withdrawal, and those blood vessels will constrict. There’s no safe estimate for how much caffeine is “safe” because a person’s body weight, metabolism, and other factors play a role. Caffeine can trigger migraines or cluster headaches if you are prone to them.
Also known as exercise headaches, exertional head pain can be caused by anything from a hard sneeze to an intense aerobic workout. One of the more common causes is weightlifting. Warning signs of an exercise headache include a pulsating or throbbing sensation and severe neck pain. Most headaches resolve in just a few minutes once the activity stops as blood pressure returns to normal. In more severe cases, you may feel nauseous or experience vision changes.
Headaches are becoming more common as people work and attend school from home, and posture isn’t always on our minds. However, it should be for the sake of our brains. Migraine Canada describes the various posture positions, including the ideal static posture and those that may contribute to tension headaches. If you notice that your posture could be to blame for some of your workday headaches, set up a more ergonomic workstation and get up occasionally to walk and stretch. You may want to see a physical therapist as well.
Secondary headaches are triggered by another underlying medical condition. Because there is more than one illness or disease present, some may be more dangerous or quickly spiral if not treated promptly. There may be a greater likelihood of neurological symptoms with a secondary headache.
During Illness (Like the Flu or Covid)
When your body is fighting an illness, it will likely create an abundance of cytokines. These molecules help to fight infection but also, in turn, cause inflammation. The swelling can affect brain tissue and other body parts, sometimes leading to head pain as you recover. Covid headache is one notable symptom of the illness that may persist long-term as part of the long Covid syndrome.
Sinus inflammation, also called sinusitis, may be accompanied by fever, sore throat, fatigue, and feeling unwell. However, the congestion and pain around the face are the most bothersome for many. When nasal passages become inflamed due to congestion, sinusitis can trigger severe headaches, leading to migraines in those who suffer from them.
Medication Overuse Headaches
Headaches caused by the overuse of medications are secondary headaches because the medicines are being taken to treat an existing condition. A severe headache could mean that some drugs require immediate medical attention, as it is a sign of a reaction or overdose. If you experience a headache after taking a new medication or recently increasing a dosage, contact your healthcare provider, pharmacist, or emergency department as soon as possible.
Alcohol Withdrawals or Hangovers
There are several ways alcohol contributes to a hangover headache, leaving you, undoubtedly, feeling a bit sore in the head the day after indulging in a few drinks. Alcohol is a vasodilator that, just like caffeine, dilates the blood vessels and sends a rush of blood to your head. It’s also a diuretic that can leave you dehydrated if you aren’t conscious of drinking enough water while sipping your adult beverage. Congener chemicals are created through fermenting and are headache triggers for some.
Dehydration is a common cause of headaches and, thankfully, can be treated with rest and drinking plenty of water. You’ll likely experience other dehydration symptoms, like dry mouth and fatigue. Severe dehydration can cause lightheadedness, confusion, muscle cramps, and even passing out. If you feel dehydrated outdoors, find shade and drink fluids with electrolytes. Find urgent medical attention for severe symptoms.
Changes in hormones can trigger headaches for many women. These changes can be the result of menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. The best way to prevent these hormone headaches or minimize head pain is to avoid triggers if possible. Eat snacks throughout the day and maintain a regular sleep routine. If necessary, discuss hormone treatments with your doctor.
After a Head Injury
The types of headaches experienced after a traumatic brain injury are wide-ranging. It could be due to inflammation, tension, or the medications used to treat it. Because TBIs are so complex, you must work with your care team to manage your head injury as best as possible and minimize any long-term effects.
Headaches and Vision Problems
Vision changes may be the result of your headache or could be contributing to it. Vision problems can be challenging to diagnose as primary or secondary headaches unless they are apparent, such as auras. Primary headaches are caused by eye strain, poor vision requiring glasses, or migraines with aura. Glaucoma or other eye diseases causing vision changes result in secondary headaches and require much different treatment. You should describe changes in your vision in as much detail as possible to help your physician find the most accurate diagnosis.
How to Prevent Headaches at Home
Premier Health suggests eight ways to help prevent headache pain. While you may be unable to avoid every headache, following the guidelines below should help reduce your chances of developing one.
Remember, stress is one of the most common triggers for migraine and tension headaches. Reducing stress may not always be possible, but learning how to better manage it through meditation, deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and other techniques can go a long way to preventing headache symptoms.
Other ways you can prevent headaches include:
Setting a regular sleep schedule
Avoiding dietary triggers
Minimizing eye strain
Participating in exercise/sports safely
When to See a Doctor
While most headaches are short-lived and go away quickly, some tend to become chronic. For example, tension-type headaches could occur more often, especially if you are prone to them and cannot remove significant stressors from your life, such as caring for a sick loved one or attending school. If you experience headaches often, your primary care physician will rule out any underlying medical condition, like high blood pressure. Then, after reviewing your medical history, a headache specialist can help identify triggers, such as certain foods or smells, and suggest a treatment plan to reduce the number of headaches you experience.
Schedule a visit with your doctor if:
Your headaches are more frequent or more severe
They don’t improve with over-the-counter pain medication
Head pain interferes with daily or work activities
When to Seek Emergency Care
A headache can sometimes be a sign of a more severe condition, such as meningitis or a traumatic brain injury, that require immediate medical attention. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms below or are concerned about your headache pain, please go to an urgent care or emergency room for evaluation.
Worsening pain over several days
Unusually severe headaches
A change in personality or cognitive function
Additional symptoms, like fever, stiff neck, slurred speech, etc.
Headache symptoms after a fall or blow to the head
Pain that comes on suddenly
You also have a chronic illness or cancer
What’s Causing Your Headache?
With so many possible reasons for your headache, it can be hard to pinpoint precisely what it could be. Have you figured it out? That’s great! If not, you may need to rest as you recover. Remember that if your symptoms are recurring or severe, contact your healthcare provider or emergency services as soon as possible.
Many African American adults experience severe primary headaches that are more frequent than the general population. However, studies show they are more likely to be underdiagnosed and under-treated. When treated, many Black people will stop treatment altogether because it is ineffective. Black Health Matters and other organizations are working to raise awareness about the disparities in healthcare for the Black population so you can work toward an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
We’re excited to share news about a campaign supporting those affected by head and neck cancer (HNC). Visit www.MadeOfMore.com for information and resources focused on helping people navigate the path from diagnosis through treatment, rehabilitation and survivorship. #MoreThanHNC
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