Understanding When a Headache Isn’t Just a Headache

It can be easy to dismiss head pain as a regular headache, but in fact there is no such thing. More than 300 types of headache exist and the likelihood you’ll experience one in your lifetime is high. Worldwide nearly 40 million people have some form of headache disease.

“Each headache comes with its own set of symptoms and a different approach to treatment,” says Vincent Martin, MD, president of the National Headache Foundation and professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “A physician trained in headache medicine is the best person to diagnose the type of headache you’re experiencing but since symptoms usually come on gradually, you should record your symptoms and triggers over a few weeks.”

June is National Headache and Migraine Awareness Month and the National Headache Foundation is sharing information on the four most common types of headache and the best treatments for relief.

1. Tension

What is it: Typically these originate in the neck or back of the head with muscle tension and creep forward. Tension headache can be triggered by poor posture, lack of movement, eye strain, stress and hunger. They can be chronic or infrequent.

Treatment: The occasional tension headache can be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, as well as stretching and regular exercise. Chronic forms can be treated with amitriptyline or regular non-medication treatments including relaxation, developing coping strategies, acupuncture, massage therapy and physical therapy.

2. Sinus

What is it: Common when you are sick or suffer from allergies, this type of headache is caused by inflammation in the sinus passage with pain usually presenting in the forehead, browbone, cheeks, eyes and nose. They are often accompanied by nasal congestion, sinus drainage or fever.

Treatment: Monitoring your allergies can play a major part in avoiding a sinus headache. When allergens are high, you can take an antihistamine. NSAIDs can also help relieve pressure by reducing the inflammation in your sinuses. If you’re sick and suffering from a sinus headache, NSAIDs plus a decongestant can often be your best option. You may need your health care practitioner to prescribe an antibiotic if the sinus infection is caused by bacteria.

3. Cluster

What is it: People with cluster headache often describe the pain as relentless stabbing sensations and experience attacks several times throughout a day for weeks at a time. During a cluster headache series, the pain is always on the same side, usually around the eye, and can include nasal congestion, sinus drainage or a drooping eyelid. Research indicates cluster headache series can be more active in the spring and fall due to the changes in daylight and disruption in the sleep cycle with the time change. Unfortunately, some people will experience chronic cluster headache.

Treatment: Preventive treatments are available for cluster headache once a person is in an attack series. During an acute attack, inhaling pure oxygen by mask is helpful.

4. Migraine

What is it: Migraine disease is believed to be due to a hypersensitive nervous system that results in debilitating and recurring attacks of pain that can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness or sensitivity to light and sound. Some migraine attacks are preceded by disturbance in vision or smell, known as an aura. For some, other symptoms begin 24 to 48 hours before the attack and can range from dizziness and fatigue to mood swings or extreme hunger. Known triggers of migraine include stress, hormonal changes, certain foods (cheeses, chocolate, preservatives), and beverages (caffeine, alcohol).

Treatment: Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, not skipping meals, and hydration can help prevent migraine attacks. Keeping a record of triggers can help you and your health care practitioner correctly diagnose and treat your migraine disease with lifestyle changes, prescription and over-the-counter medications, and non-drug therapies such as acupuncture, biofeedback training, and relaxation therapy.

“The next time your head pain strikes make note of the pain location, any potential triggers and have an honest conversation with your health care practitioner so they can help you get back to living your life,” concluded Martin.

For more information about headache disease or to find help, visit: www.headaches.org.

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