What Is a Headache?
“Headache” is a term used to describe pain in any part of your head. It is one of the most common health complaints. Most of the time, headaches are not serious. They are often triggered by things like stress, certain foods, alcohol or being tired. Sometimes, though, headaches can be a symptom of eye problems.
There are many different causes of headaches.
The most common cause of headaches is when muscles in the scalp and neck tighten. This type of headache is called a tension headache. You may feel pressure or dull pain in your forehead and temples, around your eyes, or in your neck.
Some people assume that the neck pain causes your head to hurt. Instead, it is more likely that the tension headache makes your neck hurt.
Feeling nervous, tense and anxious, or being tired or depressed can lead to muscle tightness and pain. Other things that can give you a tension headache include:
- sleeping or sitting in an uncomfortable position
- reading or doing other close-up tasks
- clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth while sleeping
- chewing gum
Most tension headaches go away within a few hours, but there is a chronic type of tension headache that may last for months. Many people find relief from non-prescription pain relievers. Talk with your doctor if you get tension headaches often.
Migraine headaches are another common type of headache. Migraines can be more severe than tension headaches. This type of headache has throbbing pain, often on one side of the head. The pain lasts for hours to several days, and gets worse when you move.
Many people with migraines will have visual symptoms before having the pain. These symptoms can include seeing zigzag lines, shimmering or colored lights, or flashes of light in one side of your vision. This is called a migraine aura. You can also have the visual aura without the pain.
With migraine headaches, you may be sensitive to light, sound and smells. You may also feel sick to your stomach or you may throw up.
It is not clear exactly how a migraine works. But doctors think it may be related to changes in a chemical in your brain called serotonin. When these changes occur, blood vessels in the brain tighten.
Many people notice that certain things trigger a migraine. Triggers can include:
- certain foods, such as red wine, aged cheeses and chocolate
- chemicals added to foods, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates and nitrites (used in hot dogs and other processed meats) and artificial sweeteners (like NutraSweet®)
- sleep problems (too much or too little sleep, or irregular sleep patterns)
- dehydration (not drinking enough water)
- hormone changes (such as menstruation or pregnancy in women)
- stress, anxiety, or other emotional problems
- lights, temperature changes, or smells.
There are prescription and nonprescription pain medicines to help relieve migraine headache pain. Also, it can help to know your migraine triggers. Try keeping notes about what you did just before a migraine started. Keep track of what you ate, how well you slept, and any other factors that may have triggered your headache. Then avoid these triggers as much as you can.
If you have migraines frequently, talk with your doctor about treatment options.
Migraine headaches affect at least 1 out of 10 people.
- They happen more often to women than men.
- Migraines can run in families, and can affect both adults and young children.
- People who have migraines often have a history of motion sickness.
Cluster headaches are less common than tension headaches or migraines. With a cluster headache, you have severe pain on one side of your head. You may have watery or red eyes on that same side of the head. You may also feel sweaty and have a runny nose.
Cluster headaches can start suddenly and last from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Many people have a cluster headache every day for a month or two. This can happen several times within a year. Men are more likely than women to get them.
If you suffer from cluster headaches, talk with your doctor. He or she may prescribe medication or recommend nonprescription medicine.