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Headaches: Causes, Types, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment


Most people suffer from headaches every now and then. Headache is one of the most common medical conditions and it can affect anyone at any point of their lives.

Primary headache disorder is the most common disorder in India and all over the world [1] , [2] . According to The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, tension-type headache and migraine are the 2nd and 3rd most prevalent disorders worldwide respectively [3] .

What Is A Headache?

Headache is a type of pain that happens in any part of the head, on both sides of the head or in just one area of the head. Headaches can come in single or multiple times depending on its type [4] .

What Causes Headache?

The exact cause of headache is unknown. However, it is thought that headaches occur when the nerve endings or muscles in the head and neck become sensitive. This sends pain signals to the brain, resulting in a headache.

Other headaches may be caused when there is an altered communication between parts of the nervous system that transfers information about pain, coming from the face, head and neck area.

Other common causes of headaches are as follows:

  • Stress - Emotional stress and depression hurt your brain which triggers a headache.
  • Illness - Illnesses like cold, fever and sinus infection cause a headache.
  • Environmental changes - Pollution, smog, allergens, and weather changes trigger headache too.
  • Genetics - Headaches, especially migraine headaches run in families. When both the parents have migraine headaches, there is a 70 per cent chance of the child getting it. And if one parent has it, the risk of getting a headache reduces to 25 to 50 per cent.

Types Of Headaches

Headaches are classified into two categories:

1. Primary headache [5]

Primary headache is a type of headache that isn't caused by any underlying medical condition. This type of headache is caused by either dilation of the blood vessels, muscles, and nerves in the head and neck, changes in chemical activity in the brain or changes in the communication between parts of the nervous system.

Primary headache can also be caused by other lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol, poor sleep posture, lack of sleep, foods that contain nitrates, stress, and skipping meals.

The common primary headaches are as follows:

  • Migraine
  • Migraine with aura
  • Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia

The less common primary headaches are as follows:

  • Sex headache [6]
  • Cough headache
  • Exercise headache
  • Chronic daily headache

2. Secondary headache [7]

Secondary headaches are another type of headache which occur due to an underlying condition. Secondary headaches are the symptoms of a disease that trigger pain-sensitive nerves of the head.

The common secondary headaches include ice cream headaches (brain freeze), medication overuse headaches, external compression headaches, spinal headaches, sinus headaches and thunderclap headaches.

The underlying causes of secondary headaches are as follows:

  • Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation)
  • Brain tumour
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Dehydration [9]
  • Concussion
  • Dental problems
  • Ear infection
  • Chiari malformation
  • Hangover
  • Giant cell arteritis
  • Encephalitis
  • Glaucoma
  • Influenza
  • High blood pressure
  • Meningitis
  • Intracranial haematoma
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) sensitivity [10]
  • Panic attacks
  • Post-concussion syndrome
  • Overuse of pain medication
  • Medications to treat other disorders
  • Stroke
  • Pseudotumour cerebri
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Toxoplasmosis

Symptoms Of Headache [11]

The symptoms of a headache depend on what type of headache it is. These are some of the common symptoms to watch out for.

  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Pain in the eyes when looking at bright lights
  • A feeling of tenderness in the scalp
  • Tight sensation in the head
  • Constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead or bridge of the nose
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling warm or cold

When To See A Doctor

Consult a doctor if your headache persists for more than 2 to 3 days, if the headache starts in the morning, along with vomiting and then goes away during the day, if you have a high fever and a stiff neck, and if you are drowsy with dizziness, chronic head pain and nausea.

Diagnosis Of Headaches

The doctor will ask you how often you have your headaches, the symptoms, things that worsen your headaches, the type of pain you have, and the timing and pattern of headache attacks.

If the doctor senses that there is a serious cause, he/she will conduct diagnostic tests like blood tests, X-rays, CT scan and MRI. CT scan or MRI will detect the problems inside the brain that are causing your headaches.

Treatment For Headaches

Rest and pain-relieving medications are the common and best treatment options for headaches. General pain-relieving medications such as serotonin receptor agonists, beta-blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, and antiepileptic drugs.

During and after the treatment, you should stay away from the things that cause your headaches, manage your stress, and exercise more often.

Stick to a healthy diet by eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin D, riboflavin, niacin, and cobalamin. Studies have shown the effect of vitamin D deficiency and other nutrients deficiency on migraine headaches [11] , [12] .

Try These 12 Herbal Teas To Get Relief From Headache

To Conclude...

Some types of headaches may need immediate medical attention like hospitalization, diagnostic testing, and surgery. The treatment options also depend on the type and extent of the headache.

View Article References
  1. [1] Kulkarni, G. B., Rao, G. N., Gururaj, G., Stovner, L. J., & Steiner, T. J. (2015). Headache disorders and public ill-health in India: prevalence estimates in Karnataka State.The journal of headache and pain,16, 67.
  2. [2] Stovner, L. J., Hagen, K., Jensen, R., Katsarava, Z., Lipton, R. B., Scher, A. I., ... & Zwart, J. A. (2007). The global burden of headache: a documentation of headache prevalence and disability worldwide.Cephalalgia,27(3), 193-210.
  3. [3] Vos, T., Flaxman, A. D., Naghavi, M., Lozano, R., Michaud, C., Ezzati, M., … Memish, Z. A. (2012). Years lived with disability (YLDs) for 1160 sequelae of 289 diseases and injuries 1990-2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.Lancet (London, England),380(9859), 2163-2196.
  4. [4] Rasmussen, B. K. (1995). Epidemiology of headache.Cephalalgia,15(1), 44-67.
  5. [5] Lipton, R. B., Bigal, M. E., Steiner, T. J., Silberstein, S. D., & Olesen, J. (2004). Classification of primary headaches.Neurology,63(3), 427-435.
  6. [6] Hambach, A., Evers, S., Summ, O., Husstedt, I. W., & Frese, A. (2013). The impact of sexual activity on idiopathic headaches: An observational study.Cephalalgia,33(6), 384-389.
  7. [7] Aaseth, K., Grande, R. B., Kvárner, K. J., Gulbrandsen, P., Lundqvist, C., & Russell, M. B. (2008). Prevalence of secondary chronic headaches in a population-based sample of 30-44-year-old persons. The Akershus study of chronic headache.Cephalalgia,28(7), 705-713.
  8. [8] Eross, E., Dodick, D., & Eross, M. (2007). The Sinus, Allergy and Migraine Study (SAMS) CME.Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain,47(2), 213-224.
  9. [9] Blau, J. N., Kell, C. A., & Sperling, J. M. (2004). Water‐deprivation headache: A new headache with two variants.Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain,44(1), 79-83.
  10. [10] Baad‐Hansen, L., Cairns, B. E., Ernberg, M., & Svensson, P. (2009). Effect of systemic monosodium glutamate (MSG) on headache and pericranial muscle sensitivity.Cephalalgia, no-no.
  11. [11] Song, T. J., Chu, M. K., Sohn, J. H., Ahn, H. Y., Lee, S. H., & Cho, S. J. (2018). Effect of Vitamin D Deficiency on the Frequency of Headaches in Migraine.Journal of clinical neurology (Seoul, Korea),14(3), 366–373.
  12. [12] Nattagh-Eshtivani, E., Sani, M. A., Dahri, M., Ghalichi, F., Ghavami, A., Arjang, P., & Tarighat-Esfanjani, A. (2018).The role of nutrients in the pathogenesis and treatment of migraine headaches: Review. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 102, 317-325.
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