Almost everyone suffers from a headache now and then, says the World Health Organization. But, they can come in various forms and degrees of intensity. Komal Soni helps you wrap your head around the how and why of headaches
Most of us don’t want to let a minor headache disrupt our day, so we shrug it off and carry on with our work. But, while some are indeed just that — minor headaches that let up on their own — others may have serious underlying causes that need attention. And, you can actually suffer from more than one type of headache at a time. Headaches have been broadly categorised into two types — primary headaches and secondary headaches.
A primary headache occurs because the pain sensitive areas and nerves in your head region have been activated, either due to over-activity or problems with these nerves. A secondary headache, as the name suggests, results from (and can be a symptom of) an illness, injury or any condition, such as sinusitis, that activates these pain-sensitive nerves. While a primary headache isn’t, in general, a symptom of an underlying condition, there are numerous conditions, which vary greatly in severity, that can lead to a secondary headache.
If you feel a tightness around your scalp or neck, almost like you’ve got a tight band around your head, you are suffering from a tension headache. Tension headaches are seen more in women than men and they manifest as a constant, dull, non-throbbing ache, which you may feel across your forehead or at the sides and back of your head, or even in your neck. A feeling of tenderness in the scalp, neck and shoulder is also associated with this type of headache.
A tension headache can last for a few hours or even up to several days. If you experience this headache on 15 or more days in a month, it is considered chronic. It is usually triggered by stress, depression, anxiety or bad posture. Although the exact cause is not known, it is largely accepted that it may affect people with a heightened sensitivity to pain. People who experience tension headaches may have a trigeminal nucleus — the sensory processing area covering the entire head and neck — that is more susceptible to pain.
A severe, pulsating ache, usually on one side of the head, a migraine can often be debilitating, leading to nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people may see flashes of light or bright spots just before the onset of a migraine.
It can last for a few hours to two or three days at a time. It usually starts at puberty and can occur periodically throughout your life. The frequency of the attacks varies from person to person; while some may experience it once a year, others may suffer from migraines as often as once a week. Women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men, mainly due to hormonal changes in their body.
It is often genetic and may be triggered by changes in your sleep patterns, excessive hunger, changes in altitude and stress, and even hormonal changes. Certain types of food can cause a migraine, as can alcohol (especially wine), caffeinated drinks, birth control pills, loud noises and strong smells.
A series of intense, excruciating headaches, each lasting for 15 minutes to three hours and following one after the other, is characteristic of a cluster headache. Experienced mostly by men, these headaches usually occur around or behind an eye, and could lead to redness and watering of the eye (also called epiphora), drooping of the eyelid and a runny or blocked nose on the affected side.
Some people may experience cluster headaches multiple times a day, for several weeks or months. This is followed by a pain-free period of months or years between clusters. Cluster headaches usually start in the middle of the night, and there are no known causes or triggers.
A headache can often be caused by an allergy. Most of the time, this happens when the seasons change and is triggered by allergens such as pollen in the air or exposure to mould. The headache is often accompanied by nasal congestion and watery eyes.
A sinus headache can be caused by an infection or a cold that leads to inflammation or swelling of your nasal ducts. This clogs your sinus cavity, leading to pain around the nasal area. It can result in a throbbing headache and your face and eyes may feel swollen. In some cases, it may even cause fever.
If you are suffering from hypertension and your blood pressure becomes dangerously high, you may experience a pulsating headache on both sides of your head. The headache may be accompanied by a numbness or a tingling sensation, shortness of breath, changes in vision and chest pain. Consult a doctor immediately if you suffer from any or all of these symptoms.
Just like thunder, the onset of thunderclap headaches is sudden and severe. The pain usually peaks 60 seconds into the headache and starts fading within an hour; however, some people may experience it for an entire week. Thunderclap headaches can be a sign of life-threatening conditions and are usually caused by bleeding in and around the brain. Seek medical attention if you suffer from such painful headache.
WHEN TO CONSULT A DOCTOR
- If your headache lasts for more than two days or increases in intensity
- If you suffer from headaches on more than 15 days in a month for three months in a row
- If there is a temporary loss of vision or other visual symptoms such as flashing lights
- If there is severe nausea
- If the headache is accompanied by stiffness in the neck area
- If the onset of the headache is sudden and severe
EASE THE PAIN
These might help reduce the severity of a headache, irrespective of whether it is a primary or secondary headache.
- Eat regularly so that your blood sugar levels don’t fluctuate too much.
- Apply a heat pack or an ice pack to the area, but avoid extreme temperatures.
- Avoid stress.
- Exercise regularly.
- Follow a proper sleep schedule.