A headache is a very common condition that causes pain and discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. It is estimated that seven in 10 people have at least one headache each year. Headaches can sometimes be mild, but in many cases they can cause severe pain that makes it difficult to concentrate at work and to perform other daily activities. In fact, approximately 45 million Americans frequently have headaches that can be disabling. Luckily, most headaches can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.
Types of Headaches
There are three types of headaches: tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and occur most frequently in women over age 20. These headaches are often described as feeling like a tight band around the head. They are caused by a tightening of the muscles in the neck and scalp. Poor posture and stress are contributing factors. Tension headaches usually last for several minutes, but in some cases, they can last for several days. They also tend to be recurrent.
Cluster headaches are non-throbbing headaches that cause excruciatingly severe, burning pain on one side of the head or behind the eye and usually cause the eyes to tear up and nasal congestion or rhinorrhea (runny nose). These headaches can last for extended periods of time, known as the cluster period. The cluster period can be as long as six weeks. Cluster headaches may occur every day and more than once a day. The cause is unknown; however, this type headache is rare and generally affects men age 20-40. According to Dr. Stephen D. Silberstein, M.D., director of the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, alcohol intake may trigger a cluster headache during a cluster period.
Migraines are the most severe and complex type of headache. Researchers believe they may be caused by changes in the activity of nerve pathways and brain chemicals. Genetic factors and environmental factors are also thought to affect a person’s susceptibility to developing migraines. They are very intense, throbbing headaches that affect one side of the head. Migraines can also increase sensitivity to light and noise. They may last anywhere from several hours to several days.
Incidence and Types of Migraines
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, nearly one out of every four households in the United States includes someone with a migraine. Migraines are one of the top 20 most disabling illnesses in the world.
Among adolescents, migraines are more common in boys than in girls. Among adults, however, migraines occur more frequently in women than in men. They are also more likely to affect those who have family members that often experience migraines.
There are two basic types of migraine headaches: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Auras are visual disturbances that consist of bright spots, flashing lights, or moving lines. In some cases, auras cause a temporary loss of vision. These visual disturbances occur about 30 minutes before the migraine begins and can last for 15 minutes. Migraine with aura tends to be less severe and disabling than migraine without aura. However, most people experience migraine without aura.
Hemiplegic migraines are another type of migraine. These migraines are accompanied by stroke-like symptoms, such as slurred speech and numbness or weakness on one side of the body. Hemiplegic migraines are dangerous but very rare, affecting only 0.03 percent of Americans.
Migraines have three phases: prodrome, peak headache, and postdrome.
Prodrome is the period leading up to the migraine. This is the time when auras can occur. The prodrome phase may affect concentration, mood, and appetite. This phase may also cause frequent yawning.
Peak headache is the period when migraine symptoms become the most severe. This phase may last for several minutes.
Postdrome is the 24-hour period after the migraine. During this time, drowsiness can occur and mood can fluctuate between feelings of sadness and feelings of joy.
The exact cause of migraines isn’t known. However, there are numerous factors that are known to trigger the onset of migraine episodes. These include:
- fluctuating hormone levels, especially among boys going through puberty, and women
- stress or anxiety
- fermented and pickled foods
- cured meats and aged cheeses
- certain fruits, including bananas, avocados, and citrus
- skipped meals
- too little or too much sleep
- bright or strong lights
- fluctuations in atmospheric pressure due to changing weather
- drinking alcohol
- caffeine withdrawal