When your head hurts with throbbing, pain, or tightness, you can hardly think of anything besides the pain. And yet it seems that because headaches are so common, many people—including physicians and employers—think the condition is trivial.
But for the more than 45 million Americans who suffer from long-term, recurring headaches,1 this condition can’t simply be brushed off. According to the National Headache Foundation, headaches are the most common cause of absenteeism from work and school, and rack up industry losses and medical expenses of $50 billion every single year in the U.S.
More than half of these people—28 million—suffer from migraines, intense headaches that are usually brought on by specific triggers. While migraines are debilitating and frequent headaches can be a sign of a larger problem, minor headaches happen to nearly everyone. Ninety percent of men and 95 percent of women have at least one a year.2 This would be episodic, meaning a headache only occurs from time to time and doesn’t last very long. Chronic headache sufferers have pain most days of the month that can last much of the day.
Since the span and severity of headaches can vary, let’s look at the various types and their causes, what can bring relief, and when you may need medical care.
Where headaches come from
When you’re feeling discomfort from a headache, nerves of your blood vessels are activated, sending pain signals to your brain. A number of triggers and conditions can cause this activation including stress, fatigue, hunger, thirst, and hormone or weather changes. Environmental odors such as smoke or perfumes, and exposure to allergens and certain foods can cause problems, too. Tension, migraine, and sinus headaches are the most common types.
Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions that cause a squeezing pressure or aching pain that wraps around the head. They are common among desk workers who stare at the computer for long periods, and comprise 78 percent of all headaches.1
Migraine headaches bring pain, throbbing, or pulsating pain on one side of the head. They are often intense, long-lasting, and accompanied by light and sound sensitivity and nausea. Migraines run in families.
If your nasal passages are infected or inflamed due to allergies, you can feel pain and pressure in your head and face. You might also feel fatigued, congested, or in more pain when you bend forward or lie down. These are most common after a cold or illness.
Other causes of headaches include caffeine withdrawal, side effects of medication, menstruation, head injury, and alcohol consumption.
If you have occasional headache symptoms, taking an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever is your best bet. Aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can bring quick relief, and caffeine can help them work faster. But if you are a chronic suffer, beware that medication overuse can lead to rebound headaches that bring more pain instead of comfort.
If getting horizontal feels right, lie down with an ice pack on your head in a dark, quiet room. Light and sound can make headaches worse. If you can pull it together to get your body in motion instead, the endorphin rush from exercise often eases headache pain. Regular workouts, including yoga, can also help prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Next, think about putting more of the “right stuff” in your body. Hydrate with water to alleviate headache pain. Make sure you’re eating a mineral-rich diet full of fruits and vegetables, nuts, proteins, and whole grains. Magnesium- and riboflavin-filled foods or supplements are also recommended. Feverfew and butterbur herbs are known to help with headaches. Lavender, basil, and peppermint either eaten or used as aromatherapy are effective at reducing symptoms.
Finally, some behavioral adjustments can help keep headaches at bay. Solid sleep for seven to eight hours a night is ideal for optimal health. Consider seeing a therapist to manage stress and anxiety, which can aggravate or even cause headache pain. Some headache sufferers find relief from chiropractic care, acupuncture, or massage therapy. Stress reduction practices like meditation, hypnosis, and biofeedback are common treatments.
Management and more help
Keeping a headache journal allows you to document frequency and find patterns of occurrence. By pinpointing potential causes, you can better manage the triggers by avoiding or cutting down on them.
Contact a doctor if you’re having headaches on a regular basis or if they are severe; you could have an underlying condition or complication from a medication. Seek immediate help if you’re experiencing a headache after you’ve banged your head, or if you also have confusion, disturbed vision or speech, weakness or numbness, or fever or seizures. Children should consult with a doctor if they’re having frequent headaches.
Chronic headache pain shouldn’t rule your life. There are simple, affordable ways to cope, and medical help is available. If you want to set up a treatment plan, reach out to one of our U.S. board-certified physicians who are accessible 24/7 through your mobile device or online through secure video.
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