A guide to coping with headaches
There are different types of headaches that can occur due to different causes and vary in duration and intensity of the pain. Here’s a guide on coping with them, writes Vinita Alvares Fernandes
The pressing feeling on your temples or the unbearable pain taking over one side of your head or the pounding feeling from inside your brain that feels like little oompa loompas jumping on a trampoline trying to hit the inside of your skull. Although it may feel like it, a headache is not actually a pain in your brain.
Most of us aren’t strangers to the occasional headache. Dealing with the throbbing, uncomfortable, disrupting and distracting pain of a headache isn’t a joyride but unfortunately all too common.
Most headaches owe its occurrence to the nerves, blood vessels and muscles that swell up, tighten or are stimulated in a way that causes pressure in a person’s head and neck. These nerves send a rush of pain messages to the brain leading to a headache.
However, there are different types of headaches that can occur due to different causes and vary in duration and intensity of the pain. In some cases, a headache may require immediate medical attention.
Headaches can be categorised into two:
- Primary headaches- Primary headaches occur when the pain in your head is the condition. When your headache isn’t being triggered by something else your body is dealing with like an illness or allergy.
- Secondary headaches- Secondary headaches are a symptom of something else that is going on in your body. A secondary headache is often a warning sign. Once you treat the actual problem the headache is relieved.
Different types of primary headaches —
- Tension headache- The dull, aching sensation all over your head is known as a tension headache. It doesn’t throb but you do feel some tenderness and pain around your forehead, neck, shoulders and scalp. A tension headache can feel like a tight band around your forehead. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. It affects all of us at some point and its main trigger is stress. Most people who get tension headaches have episodic headaches that occur one or two times per month on average. Someone’s susceptibility to tension headaches is also attributed to their genes. Some common triggers of tension headaches are stress, alcohol, dental problems, strained eyes, smoking, tiredness or fatigue.
- Cluster headache- Cluster headaches are accompanied by a severe burning and piercing pain. They occur around or behind one eye or on only one side of the face at a time. Common symptoms of cluster headaches include swelling, redness, flushed complexion and sweating on the affected side. After one headache resolves, another will soon follow. A series of cluster headaches can be daily for months at a time, hence the name. Doctors and researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes cluster headaches.
- Migraine- Migraines are an intense pulsating pain from deep within your head. This pain can last for hours or even days. Migraines are awful and can hinder your day to day life. Migraine pain is throbbing and usually one-sided. Some usual ‘migrainers’ often see flashing or shimming lines, blind spots or stars, tingling and trouble speaking. This is called a migraine aura. The symptoms of a stroke can also mimic a migraine headache. If any of these symptoms are new to you, seek immediate medical attention.
- Ice pick headache- Stabbing headaches or ice pick headaches, are short, intense stabbing pains in your head that last a few seconds. These headaches can occur a few times a day and come on without warning. Ice pick headaches move around your head and don’t have a fixed target.
- Thunderclap headache- A thunderclap headache is an extremely severe headache that comes on rapidly, peaking in intensity in under a minute. It is often benign, but it can also be a symptom of a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention. A thunderclap headache can sometimes indicate blood vessel tears, ruptures, blockages, strokes or even brain injury.
The most common secondary headaches
- Allergy or sinus headache- Headaches can sometimes be the result of an allergic reaction. The pain from these headaches is focused in your sinus area and in the front of your head. Migraine headaches are commonly misdiagnosed as sinus headaches.
- Hormone headache & pregnancy headaches- Women commonly experience headaches because of fluctuations in their hormones due to menstruation, the effects of birth control pills and even pregnancy. These can occur right during ovulation and before, during or right after your period.
- Exertion or exercise headache- Exertion or exercise headaches happens right after you participate in strenuous activities or exercise. These activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, which can lead to a throbbing headache on both sides of your head. Those who suffer from exercise headaches experience throbbing pain on both sides of the head. The pain is pulsating but there isn’t any nausea or vomiting. This type of headache usually resolves within a few minutes or several hours.
- Caffeine headache- Caffeine affects the blood flow to your brain. Having too much caffeine can give you a headache and quitting caffeine “cold turkey” can also give you a headache. People who have frequent migraine headaches are at risk of triggering a headache due to caffeine use.
- Rebound headache- Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headache. When you overuse over the counter medications or painkillers your body can experience withdrawals which leads to rebound headaches.
- Hypertension headache- High blood pressure can cause severe headaches. This is a warning sign from your body to you, telling you that your blood pressure is dangerously high and needs medical attention. Sometimes these headaches are accompanied with changes in vision, numbness or tingling, nosebleeds, chest pain and shortness of breath
- Post-traumatic headache- Post-traumatic headaches can develop after any type of head injury. These headaches feel like migraine or tension headaches and usually last for 6 to 12 months after your injury.
- Spinal headache- A spinal headache is the result of low cerebrospinal fluid pressure. You feel this headache in your forehead, temples, upper neck and the back of your head.
Coping with headaches- how to feel better
Many headaches can be managed but the methods will differ based on the type of headache.
For example some headaches might be prevented with medication, while others might be caused by that exact medication.
Most headaches will go away if a person rests or sleeps. When you get a headache, lie down in a cool, dark, quiet room and close your eyes.
It may help to put a cool, moist cloth across your forehead or eyes. Relax. Breathe easily and deeply.
If a headache doesn’t go away or it’s really bad, you may want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever or visit your doctor. You don’t have to put up with the pain!
Here are some things you can do yourself to help ease the pain of a headache-
- Stress management classes: You learn how to cope with stress and how to relieve tension. They teach you to manage pain and stress.
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy: Talking to a therapist often helps you recognise situations that cause you stress, anxiety and tension which can be triggers for your headaches.
- Acupuncture: This is an alternative type therapy that lowers your stress and tension by applying fine needles to specific areas of your body.
- Acupressure on pressure points: These are specific parts of the body that are believed to be extra sensitive which when pressed are able to stimulate relief in the body.
- Apply a heating pad or ice pack: Applying this to your head for a few minutes several times a day can ease your headache.
- Take a hot bath or shower: to relax tense muscles.
- Improve your posture.
- Take frequent computer breaks: to prevent straining your eyes.
- Massage: This may help with relaxation and reduce tension in muscles.
- Lifestyle changes: Lifestyle changes to avoid triggers like quitting smoking, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep can help ease the occurrence of headaches.
- A headache diary: can help you determine the cause of your tension headaches. Record your headache and after several weeks or months, you may be able to make a connection.
- Dash to the doctor: if you experience any headache warning signs like nausea, sensitivity to light, fever, stiff neck, severe pain or vision issues.
NOTE TO SELF: take charge of your headaches, lest you are one to others!
This article contains general information about health issues and is not medical advice. For medical and health advice, please consult your medical practitioner.