Headaches are a leading cause of pain and discomfort for Americans; in fact, it’s almost impossible to find someone who has never experienced one. Headaches can stem from hundreds of different sources and range in severity from mild discomfort to a completely debilitating pain that impacts your ability to live and enjoy your life. Interestingly, even though headaches feel like they’re emanating from deep within the head, the brain itself does not actually contain any pain receptors of its own. Therefore, all of the pain and discomfort you feel during a headache is actually coming from outside the skull itself.
While headaches can be triggered by hundreds of different things, they can generally be broken down into two principal groups: primary and secondary headaches.
A primary headache is a headache that is caused by direct damage to the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles of the head. Rather than being a symptom of a larger condition, a primary headache is a condition in and of itself. Two of the most common examples of primary headaches are migraines and tension headaches. Migraines are incredibly painful, throbbing headaches that cause sensitivity to light, sound, and smell; nausea; and vomiting. Sometimes migraines are also accompanied by an aura, or visual and sensory disturbance, at the onset of the headache. Migraines can be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, hunger, hormonal imbalances or swings, dehydration, or sensory overload–think bright lights and loud, erratic sounds.
Tension headaches are another very common kind of primary headache; most everyone will experience a tension headache at some point in their life. They present with dull, constant, aching pain on both sides of the head. They can also cause facial tenderness, pressure behind the eyes, and light and sound sensitivity. The severity of a tension headache can vary, but they are generally less severe than migraines and last for a shorter period of time. They can be triggered by dehydration, lack of exercise, poor sleep, poor posture, hunger, and eye strain.
Other types of primary headaches include cluster headaches, which present with intense burning pain and can be recurrent for life; exertional headaches, which are triggered by mild or strenuous exercise; and hypnic headaches, which strike in the middle of the night.
Secondary headaches differ from primary headaches in that they are the symptom of another related ailment rather than an isolated condition. This type of headache includes sinus headaches, which are caused by pressure in the sinus cavities; caffeine-withdrawal headaches, which stem from a sharp decline in caffeine intake; and medication-overuse headaches, which can be triggered by taking too much of otherwise safe medication. Menstreual headaches and dehydration or hangover headaches are also secondary headaches. In any case, secondary headaches are tied to other, sometimes serious, conditions and, in most cases, resolving that condition will manage the secondary headache.
When to Worry About a Headache–and What to Do
While many headaches will resolve on their own or with minor home remedies, there are certain instances in which you should seek medical care as soon as possible. These include:
- Headaches that are steadily worsening in severity, frequency, or symptomology.
- The onset of recurrent headaches after the age of 50.
- Headache pain that gets worse with coughing or movement.
- Accompanying changes in personality or mental acuity.
- Neurological symptoms like slurred speech, visual disturbances, memory loss, numbness, weakness, or seizures.
- Headaches following even minor head trauma.
- Headaches that wake you up from a deep sleep.
If you experience any of related these issues surrounding your headaches, it is advisable to seek medical attention immediately. While most people can stomach an occasional headache and view it as nothing more than a slight bump in the road, the above-mentioned headache complications could be a sign of much more serious condition.
At Pain Consultants of West Florida, our caring team works with you to develop a plan to diagnose, prevent, and treat serious headaches. We offer a variety of treatments–including physical therapy, TENS units, non-opioid pain medications, nerve blocks, and botox injections–to help you control your headaches for good!