Have you ever experienced a throbbing pain in your head that just won’t go away? Headaches are a common ailment that affects millions of people worldwide. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that up to 4% of the world‘s population suffers from headaches for 15 or more days per month.
Headaches can be debilitating and can significantly impact your daily life. With so many different types and treatments available, knowing where to start or if you should worry can be overwhelming. Headaches manifest in several forms and can have multiple causes at once, with diet, bruxism, stress, and high blood pressure being just some of them.
We’ve compiled easy-to-understand information into a headache guide with details of each type of headache and its associated treatments. Readers will gain a better understanding of how to best manage their own or someone else’s frequent headaches, be it either mild temple pain or severe chronic headaches that warrant a doctor’s office visit.
Defining What a Headache Is
A headache is an unpleasant sensation and common medical condition in the head that can range from mild to severe and is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, sensitivity to light and noise, and difficulty concentrating, although this depends on the cause. The amount of causes for pain in your temple or head is very large, with some even overlapping. The causes can encompass anything from your diet to bruxism or teeth grinding to even serious threats to your health like tumors and meningitis.
There are two main types or classifications; primary and secondary. Let’s dive into both next.
The Main Types of Headaches
Headaches are a common health condition and can be divided into two main categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches.
Primary headaches are defined as a type of headache that occurs spontaneously and not due to another medical condition. Headaches are the main symptom here.
Primary headaches include tension headaches, migraine headaches, and cluster headaches. These types of headaches are classified based on their different characteristics, such as pattern of pain, symptoms, and duration.
Out of all the types of headaches, cluster headaches can be among the most severe and excruciating, often causing intense pain around one eye or one side of the head. Characterized by a recurrent pattern, they can range from very mild to extremely painful and debilitating.
They are typically felt on one side of the head and may be accompanied by reddened eyes, nasal congestion, watery eyes, and facial sweating. Cluster headaches are thought to be caused by overactivity in the trigeminal nerve system, which triggers inflammation in cranial muscles, leading to pain.
Stress, certain foods, or alcohol consumption may trigger them as well.
Bruxism can also be a cause of cluster headaches due to increased tension in jaw muscles and facial muscles that can lead to spasms in the neck and head area.
Tension headaches, the most common type of headache affecting 1.4 billion people or over 20% of the global population, are characterized by dull, persistent pain or pressure around the head. These headaches are usually caused by muscle tension due to stress and lack of sleep.
The pain can range in intensity and may be localized to one area or spread across the entire head. In some cases, the headache is accompanied by tightness in the neck and shoulder muscles as well as sensitivity to light and sound.
The underlying cause of tension headaches is an increase in the activity of certain blood vessels, leading to a release of chemicals that causes inflammation and pain.
Treatment for tension headaches typically includes medications such as analgesics or anti-inflammatory drugs combined with lifestyle changes like relaxation techniques, regular exercise, and getting enough rest.
An underlying medical condition or some lifestyle choices typically cause secondary headaches.
Causes of secondary headaches include brain tumors, stroke, meningitis, encephalitis, intracranial hemorrhage, blood clots in the veins (venous thrombosis), sleep disorders (such as narcolepsy or obstructive sleep apnea), bruxism, head injury or trauma, temporal arteritis, glaucoma, the typical menstrual cycle, and certain types of medication. Bruxism is a condition characterized by grinding and clenching of the teeth during sleep that can lead to tension-type headaches and other issues with the temporomandibular joint or temporalis muscles.
Additionally, lifestyle factors such as lack of physical activity or exercise; poor posture; excessive caffeine and withdrawal from it; stress; smoking, and drinking alcohol can also lead to secondary headaches.
In order to reduce the risk of developing secondary headaches, it is important to be mindful of these potential triggers and practice healthy behaviors that promote proper restorative sleep and relaxation.
Exertional headaches are triggered by physical activity or exertion and commonly present as a throbbing pain that is made worse by continued movement.
The condition can be severe, causing throbbing pain on both sides of the head that may last for several hours after physical activity.
Exertional headaches are one of the most common types of headaches and can become a chronic medical condition if experienced frequently.
Understanding the different types of headaches can help determine what type of treatment plan will work best for every individual’s unique situation.
Headache vs. Migraine: Is There a Difference?
Migraine is a neurological disorder characterized by intense, throbbing headache pain. They are primary headaches; to put it simply, people with migraines will never describe them as “mild” since all migraines are a form of severe headache.
There are two main types of migraine: classic and common.
A classic migraine typically presents with unilateral throbbing head pain that can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and phonophobia. It is often associated with auras or visual disturbances and is usually preceded by warning signs such as fatigue, irritability, food cravings, or an intense feeling of wellness.
Classic migraines are the most common type of migraine and generally last between 4 and 72 hours without treatment. The exact cause of classic migraines is not known, but they are thought to involve changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, which causes inflammation of blood vessels in the brain.
Common triggers include stress, changes in sleep patterns, bright lights, certain foods or drinks (especially aged cheeses), skipping meals, excessive caffeine intake, or withdrawal from caffeine/nicotine/alcohol use.
Bruxism has been identified as a potential cause of migraines, so it should be taken into consideration when formulating a treatment plan for those suffering from chronic headaches due to classic migraines.
Common migraines are characterized by chronic migraines that may be accompanied by nausea, photophobia, and phonophobia. Unlike the classic migraine, however, they are not accompanied by auras.
These can turn into chronic migraines as the attacks can last between four hours to three days and are usually felt on one side of the head but can alternate sides.
Common migraine triggers include:
- Lack of Sleep
- Hormonal Changes
- Certain Foods and Drinks
Ultimately, it’s important to seek medical advice for chronic migraine in order to determine if it could be caused by bruxism or another underlying condition.
A wide range of factors, including genetics, medical conditions, and illnesses, stress and anxiety, bruxism, diet and lifestyle factors, overusing medication, environmental factors, or injury or trauma, can cause headaches.
It’s always important to first note the headache frequency to determine the cause. Mild pain or discomfort in any area of the head or face occasionally is normal, but severe headaches or chronic headaches can be a more serious cause.
Research indicates that certain genetic factors play a role in the likelihood of developing headaches, including migraine and tension-type headaches. Studies have shown that family history is a strong indicator of the risk for headache disorders, suggesting that genetics may be involved.
Evidence suggests that certain genetic mutations may increase susceptibility to particular types of headaches. For example, specific gene variants are associated with an increased risk for migraine headaches. Similarly, other genes have been linked to a greater risk for chronic tension-type headaches and even bruxism-related headaches.
In light of this research, it is important to consider the possibility of a genetic component when treating patients who suffer from recurrent or chronic headaches. Knowing if there is a family history can provide valuable insight into the cause and treatment options available to reduce or prevent symptoms in susceptible individuals.
It is also important to note that while some people may be genetically predisposed to certain types of headache disorders, stress and other environmental factors can still play a role in their development and severity and are likely to be the dominant factors. Therefore, addressing lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise habits, and sleep quality may also help improve outcomes for those affected by these conditions
Another major cause of headaches is bruxism, or teeth grinding. This can occur while awake and during sleep, and it is often caused by stress and anxiety. It can cause tension headaches resulting from tightening jaw muscles and may be localized around the temples (temporalis muscles), forehead, or back of the head. Headaches in children are frequent because of bruxism, which is more common in kids than in adults.
- Pain or tightness in the jaw
- Pain in the facial muscles
- Chronic headaches
- Damage to the teeth due to grinding
Bruxism can be managed through lifestyle changes such as avoiding stimulants like caffeine or alcohol, managing stress levels through relaxation techniques such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, taking regular breaks from work duties, and wearing a mouth guard at night if needed to prevent damage to the teeth and jaw muscles.
In more severe cases, medical intervention may be necessary in order to manage this condition effectively.
Medical conditions and illnesses can have a significant impact on the development, severity, and frequency of headaches.
- Allergies can trigger sinus headaches in some individuals, particularly during certain times of the year when allergies are more prevalent. Similarly, a sinus infection can be the source of chronic headaches around the temple and the eyes.
- High blood pressure is another medical condition that has been linked to the onset of migraine headaches in some people. Some severe and life-threatening cases can even be the onset of an aneurysm.
- Certain hormonal imbalances may also contribute to an increased risk of developing chronic headaches or migraines. For this reason, many women report increased headaches at certain points during their menstrual cycle.
- Tumors can be the cause in some rare cases of chronic headaches or chronic migraines. Don’t be alarmed by just any pain, but if frequent and severe headaches are a problem, don’t be afraid to raise the issue with your doctor. Tumors can be benign and not representative of cancer, so consider that.
- Aneurysms can cause painful headaches. They’re a dangerous and life-threatening condition where the brain’s blood vessels swell and weaken. If not treated, they can burst and trigger severe headaches. These situations require immediate attention at an ER as they can lead to brain damage and even death. Thankfully, these are rare causes of headaches, and you shouldn’t live in fear of every sudden bout of pain; however, if you experience “the worst headache you have ever had,” seek medical attention.
These are only a few examples of how medical conditions and illnesses can have an effect on headache types and intensity; it is important to consider any underlying health issues when seeking treatment for chronic or recurrent headache symptoms so that an appropriate plan of action can be developed with your healthcare provider.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety can have a significant impact on the development, frequency, and severity of headaches. It is important to note that stress-related headaches are often misdiagnosed as tension or migraine headaches because they share many common symptoms.
Stress can cause physical changes in the body, such as tightening of neck and shoulder muscles, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and an increase in blood pressure. This can lead to tension within the temples and neck area that causes pain which is referred to as a tension headache.
Psychological stressors such as anger or fear can trigger a migraine attack by increasing levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
It is important for those who experience frequent or severe headaches due to stress and anxiety to find ways to manage their mental health through healthy coping mechanisms such as exercising regularly, practicing meditation and mindfulness techniques, or talking with friends or family members about their concerns.
Relaxation therapies such as yoga or massage therapy may also help reduce stress levels which could prevent future episodes of headache pain. Above all else, speaking with a doctor about available medications that help treat both underlying psychological conditions and headache pain could also benefit those struggling with this issue.
Diet and Lifestyle Factors
Ever notice you might get headaches when hungry or thirsty? That’s because diet and lifestyle factors can have a significant influence on the occurrence and severity of headaches.
Individuals need to maintain a healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
Avoiding processed foods and sugary snacks can also help reduce the intensity of headaches.
And don’t forget about drinking enough water throughout the day. It’s essential for maintaining hydration levels, which can prevent dehydration-associated headaches. Regular exercise has also been shown to help reduce headache frequency.
Exercise helps increase endorphin levels in the body, which can act as natural painkillers while decreasing stress hormones that are known to contribute to chronic tension headaches.
Worth mentioning again that physical activity is important for individuals suffering from the bruxism-related jaw and temple pain, as incorporating relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation into their daily routine.
Daily activities like practicing deep breathing exercises or engaging in mindful activities like journaling can help reduce stress levels which may reduce headache intensity.
It is common for those suffering from headaches to rely on medications to alleviate their discomfort; however, there is the medication-overuse headache, where excessive medication can lead to a worse outcome.
Over-medicating may also result in the following:
- Longer recovery time
- Deeper dependency on medications
- Increased risk of negative side effects like stomach issues and drowsiness
Be mindful of the amount and frequency of medication usage, and above all, remember that a medical professional should be consulted before taking more than the recommended dosage of any medication and for longer than prescribed. Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you’re suffering from medication-overuse headaches.
Additionally, alternative treatments, such as massage therapy, lifestyle changes, or even mouth guards in the case of bruxism, can also provide relief from headache symptoms.
Environmental factors have been identified as possible triggers for headaches in some individuals. These factors include changes in temperature, air pressure, humidity, weather patterns, and even light sources. Additionally, strong smells or odors from paint fumes or household cleaning products can act as potential trigger points for those with sensitivity to them.
Even an increase in stress levels due to noise pollution or other external sources can cause a headache. These issues vary greatly depending on the individual’s environment and lifestyle so it is important to identify any potential risk factors when trying to manage headaches caused by environmental triggers.
Injury or Trauma
Injury or trauma, such as a blow to the head or whiplash, can lead to headaches in many.
A traumatic injury can cause physical damage to the structures of the head and neck, including skull fractures, ruptured blood vessels, and nerve damage.
While the effects and headaches of some traumatic injuries can be felt immediately after they occur, others may take days or weeks before causing any symptoms. They can have a sudden onset and range from mild to severe pain that increases over time.
Some people may also experience nausea, vomiting, confusion, or difficulty concentrating in addition to their headaches.
Treatment for traumatic headaches involves managing the underlying injury with rest and medication if necessary.
Medical professionals should be consulted for further evaluation and treatment options in more serious cases where there is an obvious physical injury to the head or neck area.
Symptoms of Headaches
From throbbing pain to sensitivity to light and sound, headache symptoms come in a variety of unpleasant ways that can severely compromise one’s quality of life and turn into a disabling condition.
The most common headache symptoms include dull or sharp pain on one or both sides of the head, tension-type pain in the forehead, temples, scalp, neck, and shoulders, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Other signs and neurological symptoms may include pressure or heaviness in the head; increased sensitivity to light and sound; irritability; difficulty concentrating; difficulty sleeping; fatigue; confusion; blurred vision, a blind spot, or dizziness.
As mentioned before, migraine symptoms can include auras before the pain begins. People with migraines of the classic type will report visual symptoms such as zigzag lines or flashing lights that appear before the onset of pain.
Additional symptoms such as jaw tightness or soreness may be present for those suffering from bruxism-related headaches.
It is important to seek medical attention if these symptoms persist for more than two days in order to determine an appropriate treatment plan.
In order to understand how a physician diagnoses a headache, it is important for them to first take a look at the symptoms. Once these symptoms have been identified, the physician will conduct an examination in order to diagnose the type of headache that is present and recommend effective treatment.
To start off this process, the physician or headache specialist will ask questions about how long the patient has been experiencing these symptoms and if anything has helped alleviate them.
They may also ask about any underlying medical conditions that could be contributing to their discomfort.
Then they may perform various tests such as blood work and imaging studies in order to rule out other causes for the headache before making a diagnosis.
Type of Headache You Should Worry About
It is important to be aware of the various types of headaches that could potentially require medical attention.
Migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches are the three main categories of headaches that can cause severe pain and should prompt a visit to the doctor.
Migraines are usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances like auras or blind spots.
Tension headaches involve a dull pain on the temporalis muscles (sides of the head) that worsens with physical activity; they may also include neck pain if caused by muscle tension in the shoulders.
Cluster headaches produce an intense burning sensation in one eye along with runny eyes or nose on the same side and a feeling of congestion behind the eye.
While bruxism (teeth grinding) has been linked to chronic tension-type headache symptoms as well as migraines due to clenching and straining of the jaw muscles during this behavior.
It is essential for individuals experiencing any type of headache to seek medical advice from their doctor in order to find out what type it is and how best to treat it.
Best Relief and Remedies for Headaches
Headaches can be extremely disruptive and become a disabling condition. Fortunately, there are various helpful suggestions for individuals to prevent the onset of common headaches that might be becoming too frequent without being severe.
Treatment for classic migraines includes lifestyle modifications such as avoiding triggers and managing stress levels, as well as medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or triptans like Sumatriptan or Dihydroergotamine injections.
The best way to treat common migraines is to identify what triggers them for an individual person and work on avoiding those triggers if possible. Medications such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol may be good options for migraines, especially common ones. Although the underlying factor must still be treated.
One study, for example, found that chronic tension headache sufferers benefited from regular massage therapy meant to relax their muscle pain. Many headache clinics even offer special facial massages for relieving sinus headaches.
Chronic tension headache sufferers are also likely to have bruxism, which is under-reported worldwide and a leading cause of muscle pain in the face and even neck when the bruxism is severe enough.
Tips for Preventing Headaches
There are many kinds of treatments for headaches that can also be preventative for many people who suffer from primary headaches per week but don’t have a diagnosed condition causing them.
By implementing certain preventative measures, individuals can reduce their risk of experiencing headaches.
One of the most important preventive tips is to get adequate sleep. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough restful sleep are more likely to suffer from regular headaches than those who follow a consistent and healthy sleep pattern. Bruxism can either be the result or cause of your lack of sleep, which is why a physician will suspect it when a patient comes in to report jaw and temple pain and poor sleep quality.
Additionally, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods may help reduce headache frequency, as these substances can cause an imbalance in blood sugar levels, triggering painful symptoms.
Other tips for preventing headaches include managing stress through relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or yoga; maintaining a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables; exercising regularly; taking breaks throughout the day; staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water; limiting screen time; practicing good posture; and avoiding loud noises or strong odors.
Bruxism sufferers should consider wearing a night guard when they sleep in order to protect their teeth from grinding and clenching, which can lead to tension-type headaches if left untreated. This means that the first thing chronic tension headache sufferers should do is visit a dentist and confirm or prevent bruxism as a cause.
By following these useful tips on a regular basis, individuals can greatly reduce their chance of suffering from debilitating headaches.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can digestive problems cause headaches?
Yes. Those suffering from multiple headaches per week and acid reflux or other digestive problems should know that these issues are likely related. Some kinds of headaches come from acid reflux and gas. Headaches are joined with other common symptoms of digestive problems like heartburn, indigestion, and maybe chest pains. In some cases, it could just be intense hunger along with dehydration, but most of the time, relief comes from treating the digestive issues.
What are silent migraines?
These used to be called acephalic migraines, and they’re aura without the migraine pain that comes after the visual, sensory, or speech problems that come before. It’s essentially the rare kinds of headaches that don’t have pain. They’re now aptly called “migraine aura without headache” because they’re exactly that. This doesn’t mean silent migraines aren’t a debilitating condition. On the contrary, the auras by themselves can knock someone out of their daily activities and might last from a few minutes to an hour or more.
Is it ok if I have headaches every day?
No, get help. While headaches from time to time are normal, maybe even some headaches per week, having many a day, every day, is not. You should seek medical attention if you’re having chronic tension headaches or chronic migraines and if the headache intensity is too much to handle. While everybody’s pain threshold is different, most people can easily describe when the headache in progress is out of the ordinary for them.