A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. Serious causes of headaches are extremely rare. Most people with headaches can feel much better by making lifestyle changes, learning ways to relax, and occasionally by taking medications.
Causes of Headaches
The most common headaches are probably caused by tight, contracted muscles in your shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw. These are called tension headaches. They are often related to stress, depression, or anxiety.
Overworking, not getting enough sleep, missing meals, and using alcohol or street drugs can make you more susceptible to them. Headaches can be triggered by chocolate, cheese, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). People who drink caffeine can have headaches when they don't get their usual daily amount.
Other common causes include:
- Holding your head in one position for a long time, like at a computer, microscope, or typewriter
- Poor sleep position
- Overexerting yourself
- Clenching or grinding your teeth
Tension headaches tend to be on both sides of your head. They often start at the back of your head and spread forward. The pain may feel dull or squeezing, like a tight band or vice. Your shoulders, neck, or jaw may feel tight and sore. The pain is usually persistent, but does not get worse with activity.
Migraine headaches are severe headaches that usually occur with other symptoms such as visual disturbances or nausea. The pain may be described as throbbing, pounding, or pulsating. It tends to begin on one side of your head, although it may spread to both sides. You may have an "aura" (a group of warning symptoms that start before your headache). The pain usually gets worse as you try to move around.
Other types of headaches:
- Cluster headaches are sharp, extremely painful headaches that tend to occur several times per day for months and then go away for a similar period. They are far less common.
- Sinus headaches cause pain in the front of your head and face. They are due to inflammation in the sinus passages that lie behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. The pain tends to be worse when you bend forward and when you first wake up in the morning. Postnasal drip, sore throat, and nasal discharge usually occur with these headaches.
Headaches may occur if you have a cold, the flu, fever, or premenstrual syndrome.
If you are over age 50 and are experiencing headaches for the first time, a condition called temporal arteritis may prove to be the cause. Symptoms of this condition include impaired vision and pain aggravated by chewing. There is a risk of becoming blind with this condition. Therefore, it must be treated by your doctor right away.
Rare causes of headache include:
- Brain aneurysm -- a weakening of the wall of a blood vessel that can rupture and bleed into the brain
- Brain tumor
- Stroke or TIA
- Brain infection like meningitis or encephalitis
Keep a headache diary to help identify the source or trigger of your symptoms. Then modify your environment or habits to avoid future headaches. When a headache occurs, write down the date and time the headache began, what you ate for the past 24 hours, how long you slept the night before, what you were doing and thinking about just before the headache started, any stress in your life, how long the headache lasts, and what you did to make it stop. After a period of time, you may begin to see a pattern.
A headache may be relieved by resting with your eyes closed and head supported. Relaxation techniques can help. A massage or heat applied to the back of the upper neck can be effective in relieving tension headaches.
Try acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen for tension headaches. Do NOT give aspirin to children because of the risk of Reyes syndrome.
Migraine headaches may respond to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or migraine medications that contain a combination of drugs.
If over-the-counter remedies do not control your pain, talk to your doctor about possible prescription medications.
Prescription medications used for migraine headaches include ergotamine, dihydroergotamine, ergotamine with caffeine (Cafergot), isometheptene (Midrin), and triptans like sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt), eletriptan (Relpax), almotriptan (Axert), and zolmitriptan (Zomig). Sometimes medications to relieve nausea and vomiting are helpful for other migraine symptoms.
If you get headaches often, your doctor may prescribe medication to prevent headaches before they occur. It is important to take these medicines every day as prescribed, even when you are not having a headache.
People who take pain medications regularly for 3 or more days a week may develop medication overuse, or rebound, headaches. All types of pain pills (including over-the-counter drugs) can cause rebound headaches. If you think this may be a problem for you, talk to your health care provider.