Headache: Causes, Types, Symptoms & Treatment

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints globally, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. While they are often dismissed as minor inconveniences, headaches can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life and productivity.

Headaches might be part of headache ailments or be a symptom of another medical issue, like an infection. Additional symptoms, such as changes in vision and sensitivity to light or sound, can result from headache disorders.

In 2020, between 50 and 75 percent of adults experienced headaches, according to experts. Headaches can be temporary and mild, or they can be incapacitating and interfere with everyday activities.

Numerous variables, including our surroundings, the medications we take, and other reasons, might result in different types of headaches. There are numerous alternatives for treating pain to help control it.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, signs, prevalence, prevention, and treatment options for headaches is crucial for effective management and relief.

What Causes Headaches?

Headaches can be caused by a variety of variables, such as physiological, psychological, environmental, and lifestyle-related triggers. Tension headaches are one of the most common causes, which are frequently induced by stress, poor posture, or tension in muscles in the neck and shoulders.

Migraines, another common type of headache, have numerous causes that include genetic predispositions, neurotransmitter imbalances, and environmental influences like specific foods, bright lights, or strong fragrances.

Cluster headaches, which are less common but extremely painful, are associated with hypothalamic abnormalities and disruptions in the body’s biological clock.

Headache Disorders

Primary Headache Disorder

Primary headaches, such as migraines or tension headaches, are among the most common headaches that lead to medical care, affecting approximately three billion individuals annually.

This type of headache is a sickness in and of itself, rather than a symptom of another. It is referred to as a “primary” headache because it is the most pressing problem.

Stress and sleep interruptions are common causes of these headaches.

Secondary Headache Disorder

Secondary headaches appear as a sign of another medical condition. This type of headaches can be caused by a variety of illnesses and ailments, including:

  • Sinus congestion
  • Cancer medication
  • Medication overuse or overdose
  • High blood pressure
  • Mental health conditions
  • Trauma
  • Stroke
  • Tumor

The symptoms of a headache vary according on its type and severity. Common symptoms include a dull, agonizing ache or throbbing sensation in the head, which is sometimes accompanied with sensitivity to light or sound.

Migraines can cause additional symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, visual distortions (aura), and increased sensitivity to scents and touch.

Cluster headaches usually appear in cyclical patterns, with intense pain centered around one eye and accompanied by nasal congestion, eye-watering, and facial sweating.

Types of headaches 

Tension-type headache (TTH)

The most prevalent primary headache problem is tension-type headache (TTH). The quality of life for persons impacted by TTH may also be considerably impacted.

TTH can result in headaches that hurt the front, back, and sides of the skull. Put otherwise, the entire skull could hurt.

Because TTH patients typically experience mild to moderate headaches that are not exacerbated by everyday physical activity and do not result in disability, they may choose to ignore their headache episodes.

But if left untreated, TTH can develop into a chronic (long-term) problem that causes problems like:

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches are uncommon, affecting fewer people. Throughout the day, I frequently get this headache. Though they can be quite mild, its effects are transient. Usually, the pain centers around one eye, causing tears and redness. Furthermore, the eyelid may droop and the nose may flow or get congested on the same side of the face.

Medication-overuse headache (MOH)

It is a condition that arises from the prolonged and excessive use of medicines to treat a headache. It is thought that this illness is a secondary headache problem. MOH is frequently referred to as a “medication withdrawal headache” or “rebound headache.”

MOH frequently happens in conjunction with tension headaches or persistent migraine attacks. Taking pain medication for at least 10 days a month for longer than three months is one of the characteristics of MOH.

According to a review published in 2022, MOH may play a role in the handicap that chronic migraineurs experience because the medications they take to manage their migraines sometimes make them worse.

New daily persistent headache (NDPH)

A new daily persistent headache (NDPH) is a type of headache that appears out of the blue, lasts for more than a day, and returns virtually daily. Even if it’s less frequent than certain other kinds of headaches, it can nevertheless have incapacitating symptoms and lower your quality of life.

The prevalence of NDPH is thought to be between 0.03 and 0.1 percent in the general population, although the source of its persistent pain is unknown. It usually appears in those who have never had a serious headache before.

Exercise headache

Exertion or exercise headaches are a type of primary headache that occurs during physically demanding activity. A 2020 analysis states that people with exercise headaches report having throbbing pain on both sides of their heads. Usually, there is no nausea or vomiting, although there may be throbbing pain.

Hemicrania continua

A chronic, unrelenting headache that always affects one side of the face and head is known as hemicrania continua. In addition, in addition to the ongoing discomfort, those who have the illness may also have excruciating bursts of pain, which can be a crippling headache.

Pregnancy headaches

The common pregnant symptom is headaches. According to a review of papers published in 2021, 10–17% of pregnant women report having a main headache or migraine. Stress and major hormonal changes can occur during pregnancy and cause headaches.

Certain drugs may be hazardous to the fetus or mother. It would be advised to take prescription drugs that are safe to take while pregnant or to use non-pharmaceutical treatments like an ice pack. For instance, the physician might recommend complementary therapies in addition to medicine to treat your problems.

Migraine headaches

The major headache ailment known as migraine is recurrent and frequently chronic. Typically, there is only one spot on the head where there is severe, throbbing pain. Other signs are nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and sound sensitivity

When compared to males, women experience this kind of headache two to one more frequently than men do. This difference may be related to female hormones.

According to a 2018 review of research, hormonal variations related to menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, using oral contraceptives, and hormone replacement therapy can all have an impact on migraine in women.

Although a variety of factors may contribute to migraine headaches, scientists also think that alterations in the chemical and neuronal pathway activity in the brain may be the reason.

How Prevalence is Headaches?

Around the world, headaches are quite common and affect people of all ages, genders, and socioeconomic levels. Up to 80% of adults have experienced tension headaches at some point in their lives, making them the most prevalent variety.

An estimated 12% of people worldwide are thought to suffer from migraines, with women three times more prone than men to do so. Although cluster headaches are less common—affecting about 0.1% of the population—their intensity and frequency can be quite distressing.

How to Prevent Headaches:

Although many causes for headaches cannot be avoided, there are a number of preventive steps that can help lessen the frequency and intensity of headaches.

Tension headaches can be avoided by making lifestyle changes like adhering to a regular sleep schedule, drinking plenty of water, and engaging in stress-reduction exercises like yoga or meditation.

Identifying and avoiding trigger foods, controlling stress, and adhering to a regular daily schedule can all be helpful for migraine patients.

Avoiding frequent triggers like alcohol and tobacco smoke can help lower the frequency of episodes in situations of cluster headaches.

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How to Treat Headaches:

A variety of over-the-counter, prescription, and alternative medicines are frequently used in conjunction with lifestyle changes as headache treatments.

Physical therapy, stress management methods, and over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can all help treat tension headaches.

Acute drugs are typically used to treat migraines by relieving symptoms during attacks, and preventive drugs are used to lessen the frequency and intensity of migraine attacks.

For the treatment of acute migraines, doctors frequently administer triptans, ergotamines, and anti-nausea drugs; for prevention, they may prescribe beta-blockers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure drugs.

Injections of botulinum toxin or nerve blocks may be recommended for severe or unresponsive headaches.

Although cluster headaches are infamously hard to cure, high-flow oxygen therapy, triptans, or prophylactic drugs like corticosteroids or verapamil may help.

For patients with persistent cluster headaches, surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation or occipital nerve stimulation may be explored in some circumstances.

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When to see a doctor

It could be necessary to visit a doctor if you get headache symptoms three or more times a month.

If your headaches negatively affect your quality of life or lead to other issues like stress, depression, or other worries, you should also think about getting preventive treatment.

If you are experiencing new headaches or a different kind of headache, it’s crucial to consult your doctor.