What is headache and how to treat it?

how to treat headache

In this article we will understand headaches at a grass root level. You will be able to understand the difference between various types of headaches and we’ll also try and figure out their causes and discuss their treatments.

Tension headache

Tension headaches are the most regular type of headache that every one of us will have experienced at some point of our lives.

A tension headache would present itself as an aching type of pain. The pain grips you slowly and keeps peaking with time. It would feel like there is lot of pressure on your head, like someone is squeezing your head. The ache can be continuous and can affect both sides of your head like a tight band has been stretched around it. Even your neck muscles will end up feeling tight. The ache might end up radiating on your entire head or just on the sides or back of your head; your neck can also end up aching.

These headaches stay with you for a short while, but may rarely continue for several hours. But, tension headaches are not usually severe and mostly you can continue doing whatever you were doing.

Causes and triggers of tension headaches

When you experience a tension headache it would feel like the pain is coming from your head. However, the source of the pain is thought to be muscle strain. All the muscles in your face, neck and around your head will be involved. When muscles get strained, substances called prostaglandins gets released at the site of the injury. Prostaglandins stimulate pain receptors, which in return make you experience pain in and around that area.

Several triggers can be associated with the cause of strained muscles:

  • Stress and anxiety tend to make you feel tense and tighten your muscles
  • Bad posture can result in the muscles near you neck, head and face feeling tensed
  • Squinting whilst gazing intensely at your computer screen can be related to straining muscles in your face, neck and head
  • You being tired can sometimes tense your muscles and strain them
  • Loud noises, some smells and dehydration can lead to tension and muscle strain.

Treating a tension headache

Treatment can be focused at preventing the production of prostaglandins when you strain your muscles

Consult doctor for prescription

Migraine headaches

Migraine headaches, generally referred to simply as “migraines”, are also quite common form of headaches. If you are not on the receiving end of migraine, then you are probably aware of someone who is. Approximately one in five woman and one in fifteen men are thought to be suffering from migraines.

You will experience migraines in the form of a severe throbbing pain at the front or sides of your head and can typically only affect one side of your head. But, for some, it is not about simply feeling pain in and around the head. Migraines generally has a wider range of symptoms. These include being sensitive to light and/or to sound. People suffering from migraine or “migraineurs” can end up feeling nauseous and may vomit between a migraine attack. Migraines consist of four different phases.

  1. Aura phase – this might or might not happen, but can be a warning sign
  2. Headache phase
  3. Resolution phase – where the pain tends to fade away or stop abruptly
  4. Recovery period – this might go on for hours or even days and has been referred to as a “hangover” type feeling

There is a possibility of you suffering from migraine with aura or without aura. There are also chances of you having migraine-associated aura and other symptoms – but without the headache. Such cases are defined as silent migraine.

Causes and triggers of migraine

Migraine can be triggered by abnormal brain activity, which temporarily affects nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in your brain. There is a possibility of this being related to genes that respond to certain triggers.

Some migraine sufferers are aware of what triggers their migraine and tend to avoid it. But again, there are a lot of possibilities and these vary widely among each sufferer. Certain food products, less sleep and hormonal changes can trigger migraine. Some migraine sufferers end up keeping a diary in order to jot down what their possible triggers might be.

Treating migraines

There are lot of treatments that can help migraine sufferers. These can include preventive medication, which is focused at stopping attacks before they begin. Majority of the sufferers, however, would need to take acute medication as soon as they feel the migraine is about to start. Pain killers can be administered after taking permission from the doctor. Migraine sufferers might also need to take anti-sickness medication, in addition to the ones aimed at pain relief. Ice packs, hot water bottles and applying pressure to the pulse points on the body can also be useful in case of some sufferers.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are very rare. Only about 1-2 in every 1000 people suffer from this kind of headache. They can be more painful and menacing than migraines. More men than women end up suffering from cluster headaches and it is found to be more common among chain smokers.

Cluster headaches are experienced in groups or “clusters”. The clusters involve something close to one to eight headaches each day over several weeks or months. Headaches will generally begin during the night, mostly an hour or two after the sufferer has fallen asleep. Following a spell of such headaches, a sufferer might not experience headaches at all for a brief period.

How cluster headaches feel

The intense pain is felt around and behind one eye. For a lot of sufferers, it happens to be the same side each time. But for others it can vary, sometimes left, sometimes right. But always only on one side.

Cluster headache pain comes instantly. It peaks within 5 to 10 minutes and stay at that level for 30 to 60 minutes. They can last long, but not for more than three to four hours. When the pain stops, it ends up being very abrupt and offers great relief to sufferers.

People suffering with cluster headaches end up feeling very agitated and anxious during the attack. They are completely unaware about how to handle the situation, because the pain is so severe. They may need to pace up and down or walk around in an effort to bear the pain better. Sufferers may end up going to extreme lengths in order to cope with the pain, restoring to methods that end up being more painful than soothing.

If the pain itself wasn’t intense enough, a cluster headache brings along its own set of symptoms. These can be a blocked or runny nose, generally just one nostril, a red watery eye, or a dropped and swollen eyelid on the same side as the pain. And sometimes unsurprisingly, a flushed and sweaty face too.

Causes and triggers of cluster headaches

The exact reason behind the cause of cluster headaches is still in research mode. However, it is heavily linked to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which plays a key role in linking the body’s nervous system to other bodily functions. There is also some chance of a genetic link, as 1 in 20 people who suffer from cluster have a family member who is going through the same.

Alcohol is the one of the culprits that trigger cluster headaches and sufferers are requested not to consume alcohol, especially during a cluster headache period. Other triggers include strong smells such as petrol and paint fumes. Being overheated, smoking and workout are other well recognized triggers. So it is highly advised that you stop smoking or at least reduce it.

Treating and preventing cluster headaches

Regardless of the time span of cluster headaches, medicines that provide relief quickly are the most preferred ones. Even inhaled oxygen can give you the much needed relief, but it needs to be prescribed by doctors and for practical reasons, it may only be available to use at home.

Just like in the case of migraines, preventative treatments are available for cluster headaches. These can only bought once prescribed by the doctor.

Sinus headaches

Sinuses are the cavities that exist behind your cheeks, eyes and nose. Sinus headaches are the result of inflamed sinuses and the build-up of mucus. This leads to pressure in the cavities which transforms into pain. For the people who suffer, these headaches end up being more severe in the mornings. The reason being, mucus drainage is poor at night, so more mucus end up building over time.

How sinus headaches feel

Sufferers feel tenderness in the area around their faces and a headache in the forehead above their eyes. This is generally coupled with pulsating pains that gets worse the more you move around. There are also chances of your face swelling up, vision getting blurred and you feeling lethargic. Mucus can end up dripping from your nose as so much has built up over the time.

Causes of Sinus headaches

An infection, similar to cold or flu virus, can the reason behind inflamed sinuses. Facial pain and headache may tag along if there is a more serious infection.

Other reasons include allergies, nasal injuries, nasal polyps or tumors. Travelling in an airplane with a sinus condition may also trigger this type of pain and headache. The reason being the pressure change in the sinus cavity as an outcome of changes in the altitude when flying.

Treatment for sinus headaches

Treatment is usually focused towards the cause of sinus infection. This will be achieved with the help of antibiotics, although they are not useful against viral infections. Mucus drainage can be done with the help of saline nasal sprays and inhaled decongestants. A dehumidifier can assist in loosening mucus and thus enhance drainage. However, one would have to go through surgery if a structural nasal blockage is present.

Painkillers can be used on doctor’s prescription

Hormone headaches

Some headaches that women have to go through are hormone-related headaches. These can involve menstrual migraines. In fact, more than 50% of women who have to go through migraines have noticed a connection with their periods.

Hormone headaches can happen during a women’s period as a result of falls in the level of the hormone estrogens. There are other hormone-related reasons too:

  • Some women suffer from fewer headaches when on the combined oral contraceptive pill, although other women may end up experiencing headaches more frequently
  • As women reach closer to menopause, their headaches tend to worsen. The reason for the same can be more frequent periods and disruption in the normal hormone cycle
  • During pregnancy, headache may get worse in the early weeks, but usually get better or even stop completely in the last months of pregnancy.

Preventing and treating hormone headaches

Migraine type of hormone headaches can be avoided by paying attention to the diet, having a regular sleep pattern and keeping stress at bay.

Migraine headaches, as mentioned above, can provide relief from pain. But treatment should be customized to meet a woman’s individual requirements. So for more advice, see your doctor if you feel you are suffering from hormone-related migraine or other types of hormone headache.

What other factors can cause headaches?

These involve headaches related to excessive alcohol intake, flu and colds, a ‘temporomandibular disorder’ targeting the chewing muscles in your jaw, and also obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). A head trauma, concussion and carbon monoxide poisoning may also trigger headaches.

When to consult a doctor

We have discussed a variety of types and causes of headaches here. However, if you are ever in doubt about your headaches, always take advice from a healthcare professional. If your headache is a result of a head injury, and if it becomes severe, and you experience visual problems, fever, slurred speech or nausea, seek medical assistance immediately.