A headache involves pain in the head which can arise from many disorders or may be a disorder itself.
There are three types of primary headaches: tension-type (muscular contraction headache), migraine (vascular headaches), and cluster. Virtually everyone experiences a tension-type headache at some point. An estimated 18% of American women suffer migraines, compared to 6% of men. Cluster headaches affect fewer than 0.5% of the population, and men account for approximately 80% of allcases. Headaches caused by illness are secondary headaches and are not included in these numbers.
Approximately 40-45 million people in the United States suffer chronic headaches. Headaches have an enormous impact on society due to missed workdays andproductivity losses.
Traditional theories about headaches link tension-type headaches to muscle contraction, and migraine and cluster headaches to blood vessel dilation (swelling). Pain-sensitive structures in the head include blood vessel walls, membranous coverings of the brain, and scalp and neck muscles. Brain tissue itselfhas no sensitivity to pain. Therefore, headaches may result from contractionof the muscles of the scalp, face or neck; dilation of the blood vessels inthe head; or brain swelling that stretches the brain's coverings. Specific nerves of the face and head may also cause headaches. Sinus inflammation is a common cause of headache. Keeping a headache diary may help link headaches tostressful occurrences, menstrual phases, food triggers, or medication.
Tension-type headaches are often brought on by stress, overexertion, loud noise, and other external factors. The typical tension-type headache is described as a tightening around the head and neck, and an accompanying dull ache.
Migraines are intense throbbing headaches occurring on one or both sides of the head. The pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and aversion to light, sound, and movement. Migrainesare often triggered by food items, such as red wine, chocolate, and aged cheeses. For women, a hormonal connection is likely, since headaches occur at specific points in the menstrual cycle, with use of oral contraceptives, or theuse of hormone replacement therapy after menopause.
Cluster headaches cause excruciating pain. The severe, stabbing pain centersaround one eye, and eye tearing and nasal congestion occur on the same side.The headache lasts from 15 minutes to four hours and may recur several timesin a day. Heavy smokers are more likely to suffer cluster headaches, which are also associated with alcohol consumption.
Since headaches arise from many causes, a physical examination assesses general health and a neurological exam evaluates the possibility of disease causing the headache. If headache is the primary illness, a doctor asks about its frequency and duration, when it occurs, pain intensity and location, possibletriggers, and any prior symptoms. This information helps in classifying the headache.
Warning signs indicating a need for prompt medical intervention include:
- "Worst headache of my life." This may indicate a ruptured aneurysm(swollen blood vessel) in the head or other neurological emergency.
- Headache accompanied by one-sided weakness, numbness, visual loss, speech difficulty, or other signs. This may indicate a stroke. Migraines may include neurological symptoms.
- Headache that becomes worse over a period of six months, especially if most prominent in the morning or if accompanied by neurological symptoms. This may indicate a brain tumor.
- Sudden onsetof headache. If accompanied by fever and stiff neck, this can indicate meningitis.
Headache diagnosis may include neurological imaging tests such as computed tomography scan (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Headache treatment is divided into two forms: one aimed at stopping a headache in progress, the other at trying to prevent the headache.
Tension-type and migraine headaches can be treated with aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or Extra-strength Excedrin, which includes caffeine.Prescription medications such as antidepressants and muscle relaxantscan address tension-type headaches, and ergotamine tartrate or sumatriptan can relieve or prevent migraines. Cluster headaches may also be treated with ergotamine and sumatriptan, as well as by inhaling pure oxygen. Prophylactic treatments include prednisone, calcium channel blockers, and methysergide.
Alternative headache treatments include:
- Acupuncture or acupressure
- Herbal remedies using feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), valerian (Valeriana officinalis),white willow (Salix alba), or skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), among others
- Homeopathic remedies
- Magnesium supplements
- Regular physical exercise
- Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). A test that electrically stimulates nerves and blocks the signals of pain transmission.
Some headaches may be prevented by avoiding triggering substances and situations, or by employing alternative therapies, such as yoga and regular exercise. Since foods are often linked to headaches, especially cluster headaches andmigraines, identification and elimination of the allergy-causing food(s) from the diet can be an important preventive measure.