Headaches are a common occurrence in adults. So much so that they are the most frequent complaint doctors hear from their patients. Headaches can be truly painful and debilitating from time to time, but are typically treated with over-the-counter NSAIDs or rest. However, in some cases, headaches can become so severe that medical attention is necessary.
It is important to understand the kind of headache you are experiencing and to know when to seek a doctor’s medical help.
The International Classification of Headache Disorders defines over 100 different types of headaches. Some headaches are caused by underlying conditions (secondary headaches) while others are the main medical concern. Those are called primary headaches, and there are three main types of primary headaches that cause people to seek the help of a doctor.
Three Most Common Types of Primary Headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache – 3 out of 4 adults experience this type of headache. Generally, tension headaches cause a dull pain on both sides of their head, sometimes with a squeezing pressure like your head is in a vice. The pain is usually mild-to-moderate, lasting anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours.
Stress and muscle tension, as well as genetics and environment, are thought to cause these headaches. Fatigue is also thought to play a role.
Tension headaches are typically treated with over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs like aspirin (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Motrin). Always follow the directions on the label as misuse could result in severe side effects to your internal organs. If your headache is mild, a snack or short rest may help.
Migraines are less common than tension headaches, but the symptoms are much more severe and intense. This throbbing pain is frequently accompanied by nausea, light sensitivity, and lack of appetite.
Women are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from migraines than men. Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in blood flow to the brain and nerve cell activity, with genetics playing a large role. Many people who experience migraines have one or more family members with the same condition.
Migraines often come without warning and are commonly set off by a trigger. These triggers can vary from person to person. Some common triggers are:
- Changes in weather and humidity
- Emotional stress
- Sensory triggers like flickering lights, strong smells, or loud noises
- Dietary triggers: chocolate, red wine, MSG, change in caffeine intake
Treatment for migraine headaches depends on the severity of your pain and the frequency of this type of headache. Most migraines can be dissolved with over-the-counter medication. Although, if they become severe enough and are debilitating, doctors may prescribe medication for immediate relief, as well as a preventative drug to ward off future migraines.
Cluster headaches are uncommon, but cause sudden onset severe pain that is felt behind the eyes. These headaches are much more severe than tension headaches or migraines and last between 1 to 3 hours. The pain may cause your eyes to become red and watery and eyelids may droop. Nausea may accompany the pain.
They are called cluster headaches because they come in clusters: a person can experience 1-8 headaches a day during a 2-month period every year or so. They typically occur at the same time of year with the pain being the same.
Unlike migraines, cluster headaches are 5 times more common in men than women. While there is no direct cause, they are frequently triggered by alcohol or tobacco use, foods that contain nitrates, or bright light. Certain lifestyle changes are recommended to reduce symptoms and the chances of having onset cluster headaches:
- Quitting smoking
- Prednisone; medication to reduce inflammation or swelling
- Diet changes – limiting food that is high in nitrates like lunch meat or bacon
- Limited alcohol
If those changes do not seem to improve your cluster headaches, doctors may prescribe medications such as lidocaine nose drops, verapamil, or sumatriptan. These drugs are often administered by injection.
If you suffer from any type of headache frequently, you should see a doctor. Frequent, constant headaches may be a sign of an underlying medical condition or lifestyle choice. It is important to work with your doctor and communicate your pain levels and symptoms with your physician so an effective treatment plan can be created.