Headaches are extremely common – most people have a headache at some time in their life. Most headaches disappear on their own (with a little time) or with the help of mild pain relievers. Although most headaches are mild and temporary annoyances, some people have headaches that are so severe they need to consult a doctor for pain relief.
Children can also have headaches, some well before they reach the age of 10. Research shows that before puberty, headaches are more common in boys, but that trend is reversed after puberty. Adult women experience more headaches than adult men, and they’re often linked to a woman’s menstrual cycle. With advancing age, both women and men tend to have fewer, less severe headaches.
Headaches come in various forms: tension, migraine, sinus, and cluster headaches. In a small number of cases, it may signal a more serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. It is important to know the cause and then the right remedy for headache. In this article we share useful information about both the causes and remedies for headaches so you can minimise risk of headaches and treat them better!
Headaches can be triggered by a variety of factors. The most common cause of headaches is prolonged tension or stress. These are called tension headaches or muscle-contraction headaches. Virtually everyone suffers from this at some time. Muscles in your scalp, neck, and face tighten and contract, causing spasms and pain. Psychological factors such as anxiety, fatigue (e.g., eyestrain), and stress (e.g., long periods of concentration) as well as mechanical factors such as neck strain (e.g., working on a computer for prolonged periods) are often the culprits behind a typical tension headache.
Migraines are generally more severe and can be debilitating. The cause of migraine is not known but many trigger factors are recognized. These include hormonal changes (during a woman’s menstrual cycle), certain foods (e.g., chocolate, aged cheeses), beverages (e.g., red wine), strong odours, lack of sleep, and even stress. It is not uncommon to experience mixed tension-migraine headaches.
Sinus headaches are less common than people think. They can occur after a bout of upper respiratory infection, such as a cold. Along with the headache, people often have a runny or stuffy nose. Sinus headaches are caused when bacteria invade and infect the nasal sinuses.
Cluster headaches are a relatively uncommon type of headache. They tend to occur in clusters over a few days, weeks, or months with long headache-free periods lasting from months to years. In some cases, they are triggered by alcohol. The cause is not known.
So-called “ice pick” headaches are severe headaches that occur suddenly, causing a few seconds of intense pain at a small, localized spot. The exact cause of these headaches is unknown, but they are usually not due to a serious problem.
Treating and Preventing
Since tension headaches are caused by factors such as neck strain, stress, and anxiety, treatment involves eliminating the stressful situation, if possible. Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen* or ibuprofen, and finding ways to relax, rest, correct poor posture, and exercise can all help to relieve and prevent headache pain.
Cluster headaches respond poorly to over-the-counter medications. Oxygen therapy and prescription medications such as lithium, calcium channel blockers (used also to treat high blood pressure), steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and some antimigraine medications, among others, can help in many cases. If you suspect that you have cluster headaches, you should check with your doctor.
Sinus headaches usually require antibiotics or other treatments to clear up the infection. Once the infection is gone, the headache will go away, too. Until the infection gets better, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever can help ease the pain.
Migraines can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, if the headaches are mild.
Stronger medications may need to be prescribed if the headaches are more severe. These can be divided into two groups:
pain relievers containing codeine or meperidine
ergot derivatives (e.g., ergotamine)
serotonin agonists called “triptans” (e.g., sumatriptan, zolmitriptan)
dopamine antagonists (e.g., metoclopramide, prochlorperazine)
beta-blockers (e.g., propranolol)
low-dose antidepressants such as amitriptyline
antiseizure medications (e.g., valproate, gabapentin, topiramate)
methylsergide (no longer available in Canada)
avoiding headache triggers
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