Most people experience headaches at some point in their life. In fact, it is the most common medical complaint in the world as it can affect anyone of any age, gender, and race. Some headaches can be more complicated than what people think. Headaches are caused by several reasons, have different types with their own set of symptoms, and need different treatments. It is important to know the cause and the type of headache to help your doctor find the right treatment for you.
A headache can happen in any part of your head, including both sides of your head or in just one location. Although most headaches are not a result of a serious illness, it can result from a life-threatening condition that will need emergency care. Headaches are categorized by cause, including:
Primary Headache is a stand-alone illness caused directly by the problems with or overactivity of the pain-sensitive spots in your head, including the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles on the head and neck. Primary headaches may also result from chemical activity in your brain. Also, some people carry genes that make them more prone to develop a primary headache.
A primary headache is not a symptom of an underlying medical condition. The most common primary headaches are:
- Tension headache
- Cluster headache
- Migraine with aura
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC).
There are also a few headaches patterns that are considered as primary headaches but are generally less common. These headaches usually have distinct features, including pain associated with a certain activity. However, they could be a symptom of an underlying medical condition even though they’re considered primary. These headaches are:
- Chronic daily headaches (such as chronic migraine or hemicranias continua)
- Exercise headaches
- Cough headaches
- Sex headaches.
Lifestyle factors can also trigger some primary headaches, such as:
- Skipped meals
- Certain food (for instance, processed meats that contain a lot of nitrates)
- Poor posture
- Alcohol, especially red wine
- Lack of sleep.
Secondary headaches are symptoms that occur when a disease activates the pain-sensitive nerves in the head. There are a number of conditions that have a great variation of severity that can cause secondary headaches. To put it simply, secondary headaches are a result of another cause. Different factors can result in secondary headaches, including:
- Arterial tears
- Alcohol-induced hangover
- Blood clot
- Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation)
- Brain tumor
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Dental problems
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Infection of the ear
- Influenza (flu)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Post-concussion syndrome
Since all of most secondary headaches are a result of other diseases, you will need to get medical help to treat them, especially if they become more painful and are accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, stiffness in the neck, sensory changes, and confusion. Secondary headaches can also result from other things, such as ice cream headaches (brain freeze) and medication overuse headaches (such as pain medication).
There are also various different types of headaches. The most common types are:
- Tension headaches, which is the most common type of primary headache. This type of headaches usually begins slowly and gradually. You may feel a constant and dull ache on both sides of your head, pain spread to/from your neck, and as if you have a tight band around your head. Tension headaches can be chronic or episodic. Episodic attacks occur for a few hours to several days, while chronic headaches happen for 15 or more days every month for a minimum of 3 months.
- Migraines usually cause a throbbing and pulsating pain that happens on one side of your head. It usually accompanied by light-headedness, blurred vision, nausea, and sensory disturbances (auras). A migraine can last for a few hours to several days (usually 2 to 3 days). It often begins at puberty, but mostly affects those who are between 35 and 45 years old.
- Cluster headaches happen suddenly once a day to eight times a day over a period of weeks to months. this type of headaches can occur between 15 minutes to 3 hours. If you have cluster headaches, you may feel severe pain in one side of your head. The pain is often described as burning or sharp and usually located around one eye.
- Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headache (MOH), are the results of excessive use of medication. These are the most common cause of secondary headaches. Rebound headaches usually begin early in the day and persist throughout the rest of the day. It can also cause reduced sleep quality, restlessness, and neck pain.
- Thunderclap headaches are sudden and severe. Most people describe these types of headaches as the “worst headache of their life.” The headache is secondary, meaning it’s a result of life-threatening conditions, such as meningitis, reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS), and aneurysms.
The most common way to treat headaches is by using pain relief medication and taking some rest. You can get generic pain relief medication over the counter (OTC) or from your doctor. If you see a doctor, make sure you follow your doctor’s advice because if you overuse pain relief medication, you can experience rebound headaches instead of treating your headache.