Why Do We Get Headaches? 

Headache is defined as pain in any region of the head. Descriptions of headache pain include: sharp, dull, throbbing, pulsating, burning or the worst ever. One or both sides of the head may be involved and pain can radiate from one area to another.

Why Do We Get Headaches?

The two main categories of headaches are primary and secondary. A particular type of headache is classified based on whether the pain arises from the head or alternatively, if it is a symptom of a disease that triggers pain inside the head.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches arise from the pain sensitive structures inside the head. These types of headaches occur due to dysfunction or hyperactivity of pain generating structures such as nerves. Primary headaches do not imply that an underlying disease is causing the pain. Factors such as the neurochemical activity inside the brain, nerves or blood vessels and the muscles of the head and neck can influence the occurrence of headaches.

There are several very common types of primary headaches. Cluster headaches are more common in males and can be associated with tearing. Migraine headaches are common and influenced by hereditary factors. Classic migraines occur with warning signs called an aura. Common migraines do not have this warning feature. Tension headaches arise from muscular tension in the head and neck and are described as band-like. Shock like headaches or severe facial pain can occur due to trigeminal autonomic cephalgia. This type of headache produces severe shock-like pain in the head and face.

A separate group of less common primary headaches includes: chronic daily headaches, cough headaches, exercise related headaches, hypnic headaches and sex headaches. These headaches generally relate to a specific activity and have distinct features. An underlying disease occasionally causes headaches from this list and a health care provider can investigate further.

Lifestyle factors play an important role in triggering the onset of primary headaches. Some people are sensitive to alcohol, especially red wine. Processed foods contain nitrates or monosodium glutamate and are known to trigger headaches in susceptible persons. Sleep patterns, particular deficiency, poor posture and muscle tone and stress all play a role in primary headaches. Excessive stress is also implicated as a contributor or cause of primary headaches.

Secondary Headaches

This category of headache results from an underlying disease that activates the pain sensitive structures within the head. The list of contributing conditions is extensive and ranges from benign to life threatening.

Vascular catastrophes are the most dangerous causes of a secondary headache. Any disease that affects blood vessels in the neck, head and brain has the potential result in death. Examples include: tearing or rupture of blood vessels (dissection or aneurysm), occlusion of a blood vessel (stroke) and abnormal blood vessel formations (arteriovenous malformation).

Other causes of secondary headaches include: brain tumors, meningitis, concussions, glaucoma, influenza, sinus disease, carbon monoxide poisoning and monosodium glutamate intake.

How to Treat Headaches

Home Remedies

  • Use OTC Pain Killer - Medications such as ibuprofen, Tylenol and Aleve can provide effective relief for headaches. If the headache persists for more than a few days, it is time to see your doctor.
  • Lie Down - Headaches, particularly migraines, can be improved by sleep. Lie down and close your eyes for 30 minutes or more. This may be enough to alleviate the headache.
  • Avoid Sunshine - Bright lights and sunshine may exacerbate the pain of a headache. Try wearing sunglasses and keep the window shades drawn to prevent exposure to bright light.
  • Apply Cold Compress - A cool washcloth or ice pack can ward off a full-blown headache if used at the first sign of pain. Try placing the cool compress over the forehead and eye region or the base of the neck. Reusable frozen gel packs are a perfect option.
  • Try Heat - If ice does not help, try applying heat to forehead. Applying heat to the neck can relieve tension headaches.
  • Fight the Nausea - OTC medications such as Dramamine, Benadryl or Emetrol may decrease the nausea associated with headaches. Peach or apricot nectar, ginger ale or cola that has gone flat may also help.
  • Change Your Lifestyle - A variety of lifestyle factors can contribute to headaches. Diet and exercise are important techniques to deal with stress and minimize headaches. Excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption are clearly linked to headaches. Wean slowly off caffeine and minimize alcohol consumption to alleviate headaches. Oversleeping as well as sleep deprivation can trigger headaches, particularly migraines. Develop a consistent pattern for your waking and bedtime routine.
  • Keep a Headache Diary - This is the best way to sort out the factors responsible for triggering a headache. Rate the pain on a scale of 0 to 3, record the time of day, duration and any other factor associated with the occurrence of the headache. Important items to record include: sleep duration, stress level, relation to food and weather. For females, menstrual cycles and hormone use may trigger headaches. Analysis of this data can provide valuable clues to the source of a headache.

When to See a Doctor

When in doubt, seek medical care. If concerned about a potentially life-threatening cause, call 911.

  • Seek Emergency Care - Certain underlying causes of headaches can be life-threatening. A headache along with any of the following symptoms requires immediate medical attention: confusion, high fever, passing out, stiff neck, difficulty seeing, speaking or walking or vomiting. It is better to error on the side of caution and not delay seeking care if concerned about a potentially serious cause of a headache.
  • Visit a Doctor - See your doctor if a headache is more severe or occurring more frequently than usual. Headaches that don't improve with OTC medications or that interfere with normal activities and cause distress are also indications to see a doctor.