What is a headache?
A headache (cephalgia) is pain around the head or neck. The brain tissue itself cannot feel pain, so the pain is caused by disturbance to structures around the brain. There are over 200 types of headache classification, which range from harmless to life-threatening. The causes of headaches vary, and constant recurrence may indicate an underlying condition that needs attention.
The treatment for a headache should depend on its cause. The most common means of gaining relief from a headache is using analgesics.
Over 90% of people suffer from headaches at some time. Only about 1% of headaches have a serious underlying cause.
If headaches are an ongoing (chronic) problem, keep a diary to help identify the cause. It may be a medication, menstrual, certain foods, insufficient water, work or social situations causing stress, etc.
A migraine is believed to be a neurovascular disorder. It is a chronic condition characterised by severe headaches and nausea.
Symptoms of headache
Depending on the type of headache, pain anywhere around the head or neck. The pain may be dull, throbbing, stabbing, thunderclap, or clustered. It can last anytime from a few minutes to hours or days.
The following headache symptoms should be investigated because they may be life-threatening or cause long-term damage:
- A new or different headache in someone over the age of 50.
- A severe headache that develops within minutes (thunderclap headache).
- A headache that worsens with exertion, coughing, straining or changing posture.
- Loss of vision, blurred vision or visual abnormalities.
- Headache brought on by chewing, that goes when you stop chewing.
- Stiff neck.
- Confusion, mental abnormalities.
- Weakness or malfunction of another part of the body that started at the same time as the headache.
Causes of headache
- Tension or stress. This is the most common type of headache. There is a constant ache and tightness around head and behind the eyes, and around the neck. Typically it will last for a few hours. The muscle tension arises from stress, fatigue or poor posture.
- Infection. Commonly ear or sinus infection.
- Trauma. Injury to the head or neck, including teeth and jaw.
- Disease or inflammation.
- Foods. A reaction to certain foods (see triggers, below).
- Visual. Straining to read or see, poor eyesight.
- Hunger, low blood sugar.
- Toxic build-up. A hangover is a good example of a toxic headache. Other examples are from constipation, certain pharmaceutical drugs, or exposure to pollution. Ironically, medication-overuse headaches are common, and are often caused by excessive use of painkillers for headaches, paradoxically causing worse headaches. Nine of the ten most prescribed drugs in the USA (including Prilosec, Zocor and Amoxicillin) list headaches as one of their side effects.
- Lack of sleep or change in sleep patterns.
- Menstruation, menstrual cycle.
- Fever and other illnesses. Headaches are caused by viruses such as influenza, and many other infections.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Magnesium, lack of.
More serious causes of headaches include meningitis, encephalitis, brain abscess, brain tumour, injury causing internal bleeding etc.
Triggers for headache
- Exertion. Some headaches can be set off by over-exertion, coughing or sexual activity.
- Fatty foods.
- Food additives.
- Red meat.
- Salt - either too much refined salt or too little mineral-rich sea salt.
- Some spices.
- Weather changes.
- Loud noise.
Children and headache
Children can suffer from the same types of headaches as adults, including tension headaches, migraines, chronic daily headaches, cluster headaches and sinus headaches. They have the added problem of being more likely to wear dental braces and orthodontic headgear that place constant pressure on the jaw area. It is common for headaches to start in childhood or adolescence.
Although most cases of headaches in children are usually benign, when they are accompanied with other symptoms such as speech problems, muscle weakness or loss of vision, a more serious underlying cause should be investigated.