A dull pressure, a sharp pain, an uncomfortable pounding, a vise-like sensation – all can signal the start of a headache. A painful part of the human condition since the beginning of time, more than 150 different types of headaches have been identified, categorized and treated in increasingly effective ways. Following is a look at how to cope with the most common headaches, as well as when your symptoms indicate immediate attention is needed.
Tension. It’s the rare person who hasn’t experienced the tight feeling or band-like grip around the head that characterizes a tension headache. Stress is frequently the trigger, so staving them off with recognized stress management strategies such as deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation may help. For immediate relief, gentle massage and use of warmth or heat to ease tense neck and shoulder muscles often work well. Over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen may also be used judiciously.
Cluster. Seen more often in men, these headaches cause intense pain on one side of the head or around one eye; are often accompanied by nasal discharge or teary eyes; and occur in bouts of frequent attacks over weeks or months, followed by long periods of remission. Treatments include inhaling pure oxygen through a face mask, which often relieves pain within 15 minutes, and injectable triptan medications used to treat migraines (see sidebar).
Exertional. Headaches experienced after strenuous exercise may result from being dehydrated or overheated or simply from overexertion, and are usually resolved quickly with rest and adequate hydration.
Sinus. The pain, pressure and fullness in cheeks, brow or forehead, often accompanied by a stuffy nose, fatigue, and an upper toothache, can indicate a headache from sinusitis or seasonal allergies, but be aware that in many cases it is actually a migraine. Rest, fluids, decongestants and over-the-counter pain medications help alleviate headaches caused by sinusitis; those caused by an allergy will usually be treated with a nasal spray.
Each headache has its own “flavor,” but if they occur more frequently or more severely, seem to worsen with the use of over-the-counter drugs, and interfere with your normal activities, please contact us…and consider starting a headache journal that you can bring to your appointment. Track if they are occurring at certain times of day, or after specific activities or foods; e.g., after a workout, a sleepless night or a change in diet. Also note the duration of each headache; where the pain is located; the intensity and type of pain; other accompanying symptoms, such as gastrointestinal distress; and medications you used. Preformatted trackers can be accessed online at sites such as headaches.org.
When to seek help promptly: If your headache can be described as one of the worst you’ve ever experienced and is accompanied by trouble seeing, speaking or walking; fainting; high fever; numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of your body; stiff neck; or nausea or vomiting.
Inside the ‘Migraine Brain’
Despite the prevalence of migraine headaches, which affect 39 million people in the U.S. alone, their complex and multifactorial causes have made it difficult to pinpoint the most effective management of often debilitating symptoms that can include severe, pulsating pain; nausea; and visual auras. But years of research into the “migraine brain” are revealing a deeper understanding and new treatments, discussed in our Q&A with a headache expert, below.
Q: What is a migraine brain?
A: We have found it’s wired somewhat differently than the average brain, highly sensitive to light, sound and movement.
Q: Does genetics play a role?
A: Absolutely, as more than 70% of migraine sufferers have at least one close relative with the problem.
Q: What triggers a migraine?
A: Among the multiple factors are stress, hormonal shifts, time and travel changes, certain foods, inadequate nutrition, alcohol, and too much or too little caffeine. Anyone of these, or more likely, a combination, can trigger an episode. But the number one cause is the overuse of migraine medications, which triggers rebound headaches and starts a cycle of needing increasing quantities for relief.
Q: What medications are used to manage or prevent symptoms?
A: In addition to over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, a class of drugs called triptans that block pain signals in the brain have been used effectively for years. There are many other options, such as new biologic drugs to prevent or minimize the pain of migraines, including calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors and serotonin-receptor agonists.
Q: Will lifestyle adjustments make a difference?
A: There is no question that migraine patients benefit most from a set routine of healthy eating (avoiding alcohol and foods with nitrates or preservatives) and regular exercise; getting adequate sleep each night; and learning to manage stress with techniques such as biofeedback training, relaxation training and cognitive-behavioral therapy.