Headaches inflict their misery in a variety of ways. Some start from a dull, steady ache maybe in the back of the head, maybe on the top of the head or maybe it is just a pain on the left or right side of the head. Others go straight to a blinding, throbbing pain. Nearly everyone has headaches at least now and then, but an unfortunate few experience near-frequent head pain. Common headache types include tension headaches, cluster headaches, rebound headaches, sinus headaches, and migraine.
There are a number of treatment strategies that work best for each type of headache. Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen do the trick for many people. Others need muscle relaxants or even stronger medicines. Some find relief from self-help and alternative techniques like acupuncture.
Instead of waiting to be blindsided by another sudden or pounding headache, preventive strategies can be taken, such as using stress management, physical therapy, or exercise in tandem with medications. Another aspect of prevention is learning to recognize and change things that may trigger your headaches — like reducing emotional stress, changing your diet, or getting more sleep. Advances in the medical management of headache mean that relief is no longer just possible, but probable. Although some form of head pain will occasionally visit most people, no one should have to live and suffer with headaches.
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By Heidi GodmanExecutive Editor, Harvard Health Letter
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By Matthew SolanExecutive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch
It’s hard to think about the causes of headaches when you’re struggling with pain. Once you’re feeling better, figuring out what leads to the agony can help you dodge it in the future. This requires you to pay attention to the environment, eating habits, and activities that spark headache discomfort.
Migraine headaches are associated with an increased risk of heart disease as well as stroke in women.
Women who get migraines may face a higher risk of heart attack and stroke than women who don’t get these crippling headaches.
In its 2016 guidelines, the American Academy of Neurology recommended the use of onabotulinumtoxin A (Botox) injections as a way to help reduce the frequency of chronic migraines.
Intermittent tension-type headaches can usually be relieved with nonprescription pain relievers. Mind-body approaches and limiting caffeine may help prevent them. Persistent headaches require medical attention to rule out underlying conditions.
A headache diary can help diagnose and treat headaches, identify possible headache triggers and related symptoms, and track the dosage and effectiveness of medications.
Migraine is a very common, but very particular, type of headache. Most people who have migraine experience repeated attacks of headaches that occur over many years. The typical migraine headache is throbbing or pulsating, and often is associated with nausea and changes in vision. While many migraine headaches are severe, not all severe headaches are migraines, and some episodes can be quite mild.
Up to 20% of people in the United States will experience migraine headaches at some point in life. In about half of those, migraine headaches first appear during childhood or adolescence. Two-thirds of people who get migraines are women, probably because of the influence of hormones. Migraines also tend to run in families.
Despite years of research, scientists do not know exactly why migraines occur. The pain of migraines is associated with swelling in blood vessels and irritation of nerves that surround the brain. But most experts don't think that this is the direct cause of migraines.
The brain doesn't have pain receptors. But it processes pain signals from other parts of the body. It's the pain processing networks, or centers, in the brain that are overly reactive or dysfunctional in migraine.
Most headaches can be treated effectively with medication, but certain instances or patterns of headache may be indicators or symptoms of a more serious condition.