Things You Need to Know About Headaches: Types, Diagnosis and Remedies
Headaches are pain at the scalp, forehead, eyes and areas around the upper neck. But what causes it, how do we treat it and more.
Headaches are prevalent among people of all ages. Almost everyone experiences varying pain levels due to headaches at some point. Sometimes it is just for a few minutes, but it can last for many hours or even days. It affects our lives and our mental health. Headaches are common reasons for absence from a job or school. It also directly or indirectly affects the quality of our work.
You cannot treat headaches as a simple strain. Instead, you should take care of it initially before it becomes a monster of pain. Understanding its types, recognising the symptoms, and efficient natural remedies and precautions can relieve most headaches. However, a doctor’s visit and a checkup are highly recommended to avoid serious problems like tumours during enormous pain. A balanced diet with a night of good sleep is beneficial. Meditation and a few yoga positions can help relax the body and eliminate stress, preventing severe headaches and other related underlying issues.
What are Headaches?
Headaches are pain or discomfort at the scalp, forehead, eyes and areas around the upper neck. It feels as though the brain is hurt, but it tries to indicate that other parts of the body are hurt through a headache.
What Causes Headaches?
Pain signals sent by the brain between muscles and nerves cause headaches. However, the exact reasons behind these pain signals are not identified to date. But some or a combination of many of the factors listed below induce headaches.
- One of the main reasons for headaches is muscle tension. The muscles around the head and neck areas tighten and cause headaches.
- Activation of the trigeminal nerve is a common symptom of headache. This nerve is found in the head and face that functions in sensory signalling to the brain.
- As per the NHS, some common causes of headaches are illnesses like fever, cold, throat infections, sinusitis, ear infections, etc.
- Lifestyle, depression, emotional and other stress-related headaches are widespread nowadays. Alcohol abuse, smoking, dehydration, hunger, skipping meals, irregular sleep patterns, physical exertion and over-medicating are lifestyle factors that contribute to headaches.
- Other environmental factors such as strong smell from chemicals, allergens, certain foods, caffeine products, weather patterns, pollution, etc., also contribute to headaches.
- Although it requires more research and studies for conclusive thoughts, many medical practitioners believe that some headaches may have genetic causes as well. Specifically, there are very high chances that migraines are inherited by the kids when parents suffer from the same.
- Hormonal imbalance causes many types of headaches. For example, estrogen hormone fluctuation in the blood initiates the onset of migraine headaches in women. In addition, some menstrual women experience headaches during the menstrual cycle.
- Certain medications like nitroglycerin and birth control pills cause headaches. Also, the abrupt ceasing of certain medicines like ibuprofen, caffeine, etc., causes sudden onset of headaches.
Classification and Types of Headaches
There are about 300 distinct types of headaches. International Society for Headache classified and grouped various headaches to improve the awareness of the disorder and ease the diagnosis and treatment process.
The principal classification of headache:
- Primary headache
- Secondary headache
- Other headaches include cranial neuralgias and facial pain.
Primary Headaches vs Secondary Headaches
Pain at the head region and the illness caused by the head pain are primary headaches. It may be due to the brain’s overactivity, muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Pain or illness that arises from other disorders causing headaches is secondary headaches.
Primary headaches do not indicate any underlying health conditions, whereas secondary headaches are symptoms of a severe health condition.
A primary headache is not a severe condition and it is very common, whereas secondary headaches are serious conditions but rare.
Preventive measures and home remedies have high potential in curing primary headaches, while consultation with a qualified doctor is necessary to treat secondary headaches.
We can further classify primary headaches as migraine headaches, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. At the same time, secondary headaches are due to sinus, brain tumours, aneurysm, meningitis, neck or brain injury, etc.
You may experience pain in the neck and head regions for primary and secondary headaches.
An overview of different types of headaches as per studies are:
1. Tension Headache
Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches. It is predominant in the teens and young adults in their 20s to 40s. The leading cause of this type of headache is the stressed muscles covering the skull. This stress may be physical stress or emotional stress. Manual labour, prolonged screen time, etc., also cause tension headaches.
The pain intensity is minimal due to muscle tension near the head and neck. It feels like a tight band is tied around the head and a weight on the neck, causing pain. The pain concentrates and begins at the back of the head. Tension headaches don’t last very long and fade away quickly. However, they are recurrent almost every day, making them a chronic type of headache.
- Symptoms of this type: tightness and pressure around head and neck
- Duration of pain: 30 minutes to 5 days; occasional or frequent (15 days in a month)
- The severity of pain: Mild to moderate pain
- Remedy/treatment: Muscle relaxants, pain relievers like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, physical therapy
2. Migraine Headache
Migraines are a type of headache that causes an intense amount of pain, described as pounding pain. Apart from severe pain, it causes sensitivity to intense sound and light and induces nausea and vomiting. In addition, some other symptoms include loss of appetite, digestive problems, dizziness, fever, blurred vision, etc. Severe cases of migraines cause loss of balance in verbal and motor coordination. Migraines may be short, like 5 hours or even extend to several days.
- Symptoms of this type: Vomiting, nausea, sensitivity to sharp lights and sound
- Duration of pain: 2 – 72 hours
- The severity of pain: Throbbing pain
- Remedy/ treatment: darkroom, hot or cold compress, massages, tricyclic antidepressants
3. Cluster Headache
Cluster headaches are very severe forms of headaches. They usually occur in the eye region on one side. The eyes start watering and become red and droopy. The pain occurs suddenly and lasts for a few minutes to a few hours. Cluster headaches occur multiple times in a day as a group, and thus we call them cluster headaches. These headaches may disappear for a while and reoccur on the same side with the same symptoms.
Men are more affected by this type of headache than women. Genetics may be one of the reasons for cluster headaches. In addition, the release of histamine and serotonin from the brain may be a reason for the irregular biological clock in this type.
- Symptoms of this type: Stuffy nose, watery eyes, redness of eyes, droopy eyelids, nasal congestion and discharge.
- Duration of pain: 20 minutes- 2 hours (multiple times in a day)
- The severity of pain: most severe pain
- Remedy/ treatment: Injections, nasal spray, oxygen therapy, headache preventive drugs
Other Common Headaches
1. Hormone Headache
Some kinds of headaches occur typically around the menstrual cycle of the women. This type is known as hormone headaches or menstrual migraines. It starts before or during the cycle. The intensity of the pain is severe on one side, with sensitivity to acute environmental conditions like light and sound. Women may also experience this during pregnancy.
2. Sinus Headache
Sinus headaches cause pain around the forehead, nose and cheekbone areas. It happens when the sinus cavity is inflamed or infected. The nasal mucus is greenish yellow in this type due to the infection. Other symptoms include runny nose, fever, etc.
3. Chronic Headache
Chronic headaches occur almost every single day. They last for a short period or may last for 5 to 6 hours. This type is also recurrent and follows a pattern. Chronic headaches are further classified into Chronic migraine, Chronic tension headache, New daily persistent headache and Hemicrania continua.
4. Headaches due to Head injury
This type is also known as Post-traumatic headache. Such headaches occur due to any physical accident or damage in the head region. The pain begins two days after the physical stress and lasts for a few months. Some of the symptoms of this type are vertigo, lightheadedness, memory issues, tiredness, etc. It is mandatory to have a doctor’s supervision in these cases.
5. High Physical Activity Headache
Headaches occur due to excessive workouts and physical activities like physical intimacy. While exercising, there is a need for high blood supply in the head, scalp and neck areas. If that is lagging, then a headache persists. It lasts for a few minutes to 2 days.
6. Headaches due to Medication Overuse
Using excessive medications causes this type of headache. They are also called rebound headaches. OTC (Over-The-Counter) medicines and other pain relievers containing opiates are the main culprits causing this headache. Usage of these formulas more than thrice a week, for an extended period, ensures a harmful effect on the body.
Some rare types of headaches are Ice pick headaches, Thunderclap headaches and Spinal headaches.
Symptoms of Headaches
Some of the common headache symptoms, irrespective of the types, are as follows:
- Sharp, pounding or throbbing pain
- A tight grip on the head
- The sudden appearance of pain on one side or double side or the whole head
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty in sensory and motor coordination
- Runny nose
- Neck pain
- Sensitivity to the external environment
How to Diagnose and Identify Headaches?
You can self-diagnose headaches by having a headache diary or headache journal. Track every detail of the symptoms, intensity of pain, etc., in the log. It helps in identifying the type of headaches. Even having mobile apps help to register the symptoms of a headache – this helps identify the problem and responses to different methods of treatment.
A preliminary diagnosis for headaches involves answering a few questions from the doctor. The questions will be based on symptoms, pain intensity, timing, and pain pattern. Some of the details to be disclosed to the doctor include:
- When did the headache start?
- Duration of the headache
- Frequency of the headache
- Location of the pain
- Intensity or severity of the headache
- Single type or a mix of different types of headache
- Family history of headache
- Causes and symptoms
- Physical and emotional stress
- Lifestyle details
- Medications, if any
After the preliminary diagnosis, physical and neurological examinations to diagnose headaches are done by answering the questions. Some of the main physical symptoms that the doctors lookout for are blood pressure, dizziness, blurred vision, fever, nausea, muscle fatigue, etc. Neurological tests rule out the risk of brain and nervous disorders.
A few special diagnostic tests like imaging, including CT scans and MRI scans, can help identify the type and severity of the headache. In addition, sometimes, you can use blood samples to identify headaches.
Blood and urine tests identify other metabolic disorders like diabetes, thyroid, etc., that have the potential of causing headaches.
CT scan and MRI test evaluate parts of the brain and nerves and produce images and pictures to identify headaches.
Treatment for Headaches
You can administer treatment for headaches after understanding the causes of the problem. For example, inflammation or physical damage to the head may lead to headaches. You can treat such headaches with medications. Other types of headaches can be due to emotional stress. You can combat them with non-medication techniques and a few natural remedies. Toxins ingested due to smoking, alcohol and other allergens also cause headaches, which proper lifestyle modifications can prevent.
The medications for headaches are broadly classified into pain-relieving drugs and preventive medicines.
You should take preventive medications before the body shows any symptoms to avoid any headache episodes in the future. You can use preventive drugs for headaches, like tricyclic (antidepressants), anti-seizure medications, monoclonal antibodies, botox injection, etc. In addition, for immediate relief from headache pains, over-the-counter medicines i.e. without a prescription from a pharmacist. You can take these medicines once the symptoms are visible.
NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are a group of pain relievers that work by blocking the chemical that causes inflammation and thereby blocking the signalling mechanism that communicates to the brain about the pain. Some of the anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed for migraine headaches are Excedrin Migraine, Advil Migraine, and Motrin Migraine Pain. But these drugs have some side effects like indigestion and nausea. High doses even lead to kidney damage.
Triptans are another set of drugs explicitly prescribed for migraines. They work by restricting the release of chemicals that cause migraines; by narrowing the blood vessels. Some examples of this type of drug are Sumatriptan, zolmitriptan, eletriptan and almotriptan. Even though they possess side-effects like nausea, dizziness, etc. These drugs prevent the occurrence of migraine headaches when taken continuously. But when stopped, a rebound headache can occur.
Non Medication Techniques and Natural Remedies
Research shows that varied natural remedies have a high potential in treating headaches. Some of them are:
- Nerve stimulation
- Therapeutic massage
- Relaxation techniques
- Intake of vitamin and mineral supplements
- Stress counselling
Yoga Poses to Improve the Headache Condition
Research shows that yoga is an effective remedial treatment for headaches and migraines. This study suggests that practising yoga five times a week improved their headache conditions and provided better relief than the conventional treatments. In addition, yoga is a great way to relieve stress and also would specifically help in reducing pain from chronic tension headaches. Some of the best poses for headache relief are:
Child’s Pose – reduces stress and relaxes the mind
- Kneel on the floor and sit on your feet.
- Widen the knees and bring the toes together.
- Lay down on the abdomen by reaching the arms forward, touching the surface.
- Rest the forehead on the surface.
- Count up to 8 breaths and relax.
Legs Up the Wall – for better sleep and good blood flow to the heart
- Lie on the back with butt and both legs up against the wall.
- Count up to 8 breaths and relax.
Supine Twist- relieve tension and relaxes the body
- Lie on the back and bring the knees to your chest level.
- Lower the legs to one side.
- Stretch the arms straight with palms facing up.
- Turn your head in the opposite direction of the legs.
- Count up to 8 breaths and relax.
- Repeat on the other side.
Corpse Pose- relieve stress.
- Lie on the back.
- Stretch your legs and arms with palms facing up.
- With eyes closed, try and relax for a few minutes.
How to Prevent Headache?
Prevention is always better than cure. And the headache is one great example of this statement. It is easy to identify prevention techniques for headaches from the headache diary. Some of the prevention techniques include lifestyle modifications such as:
- Balanced diet
- Good sleep pattern
- Reducing the stress levels
- Regular breaks from work desk
- Practising good posture
- Regular exercise
- Avoid smoking and alcohol
- Reduction in caffeine intake
When Should You Consult a Doctor?
Most of the headaches are curable at home with natural remedies. But sometimes, the symptoms and reactions are so bad that you cannot treat them at home. This stage is a sign of serious health assistance. Doctors prescribe effective treatment after an accurate diagnosis. A report suggests that even experiencing a new type of headache at an old age (40 years and above) calls for a doctor’s attention. Some other signs and symptoms that require a doctor’s appointment are listed.
- Recurrent, continuous and consistent headaches in a short time
- When OTC medications don’t seem to respond positively
- When normal physical activities take a toll on headaches
- Headaches accompanied by stiff necks, seizures and other serious complications
- Headache with blurred vision and compromised motor coordination
- Headache with fever, nausea and vomiting
- Head injury
Headaches are a prevalent disorder that affects everyone for some reason. The severity of this disorder is minimal in most cases apart from a very few severe cases. The positive factor is that most headache cases are not life-threatening, and the remedies are homemade or natural. A few lifestyle changes themselves can prevent the onset of headaches. A stress-free environment is vital for headache prevention. Even if stress persists, meditation and yoga are very effective to cure headaches. You can treat chronic and painful headaches with OTC. More severe headaches are rare and should be consulted with a health professional and treated appropriately.