Headaches are a common medical complaint experienced by most people at some point in their lives. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that almost half of all adults worldwide experience a headache in any given year. Headaches can affect anyone regardless of age, race, and gender.
There are different ways to define headaches, and they can occur in any part of the head, on both sides of the head, or in just one location. The International Headache Society (IHS) categorizes headaches as primary, when they are not caused by another condition, or secondary, when there is a further underlying cause.
Primary headaches are stand-alone illnesses caused directly by the overactivity of, or problems with, structures in the head that are pain-sensitive, including the blood vessels, muscles, and nerves of the head and neck. Common primary headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are symptoms that happen when another condition stimulates the pain-sensitive nerves of the head.
A wide range of different factors can cause secondary headaches, including alcohol-induced hangover, brain tumors, blood clots, bleeding in or around the brain, carbon monoxide poisoning, concussion, dehydration, glaucoma, teeth-grinding at night, influenza, overuse of pain medication, panic attacks, and stroke. As headaches can be a symptom of a serious condition, seeking medical advice is important when they become more severe, regular, or persistent.
Tension headaches are the most common form of primary headache and can begin slowly and gradually in the middle of the day. They cause a tight band-like sensation around the head, a constant dull ache on both sides, and pain that spreads to or from the neck. Tension-type headaches can be either episodic or chronic. Migraine headache causes a pulsating, throbbing pain usually only on one side of the head, accompanied by blurred vision, light-headedness, nausea, and sensory disturbances known as auras. Cluster headaches usually last between 15 minutes and 3 hours, and occur suddenly, once per day up to eight times per day for a period of weeks to months.
The most common ways of treating headaches are rest and pain relief medication. It is important to follow the doctor’s advice, as overusing pain relief medication can lead to rebound headaches. Factors such as poor nutrition, underlying malabsorption issues, or other medical conditions can cause headaches resulting from a deficiency of a particular nutrient or nutrients, especially magnesium and certain B vitamins. Nutrient deficiencies can be addressed through a healthy diet or supplementation.
Alternative forms of treatment for headaches, such as acupuncture, cognitive behavior therapy, herbal and nutritional health products, and meditation, are available, but it is important to consult a doctor before making any major changes or beginning any alternative forms of treatment.
Headaches are often not taken seriously because they are sporadic, most headaches do not lead to death, and they are not contagious. However, they represent a huge health burden, and the WHO calls for more resources to be allocated for the treatment of headache disorders.
In conclusion, headaches can be caused by various factors, and seeking medical advice is crucial when they become more severe, regular, or persistent. Treatment typically involves rest and pain relief medication. It is important to follow the doctor’s advice to avoid rebound headaches. Alternative forms of treatment can be considered, but it is important to consult a doctor before beginning any of these treatments.
Written by Daniel Mcbreen