Few people get through life without having a headache. In fact, some people have trouble making it through a week or even a day without one. Headache is a top reason why people miss days at work and school, and the National Institutes of Health calls it the most common type of pain.
That’s not surprising, considering the many forms this condition takes. By some counts there are more than a dozen, from the benign and fleeting ice cream headache to head pain that needs immediate medical attention.
Luckily, most headaches are not caused by serious disorders. But they can still be very painful and debilitating. Some common types of headache include:
- Tension headaches. Also called a stress headache, these usually begin slowly and can eventually become severe. They cause a steady, dull pain that people often describe as feeling like a band around their head. Tension headaches usually result from tight muscles in your neck, shoulders and jaw – a common reaction to stress. People with over-scheduled lifestyles, those who don’t get enough sleep, work long hours and miss meals are more likely to get tension headaches.
- Migraines. These headaches cause intense, pounding pain that can last a few hours or go on for days. People with migraines often hide from noise, light and even odors, which can make their pain worse. Blurred vision, confusion, nausea and vomiting are among migraine symptoms. Migraines are more common in women and in people who have close family members with this type of headache. They are probably caused by fluctuations in the level of a brain chemical called serotonin.
- Cluster headaches. These are much less common than migraines but can be as severe. As the name implies, they occur several times a day for several weeks or months, and then disappear completely for months or years. Cluster headaches are always on one side of your head, with that eye becoming red and watery. The burning, piercing pain from these headaches is so intense that most people can’t sit still during an attack and pace instead. Cluster headaches occur much more often in men and in people who smoke and drink alcohol frequently.
- Rebound headaches. This is also called medication overuse headache. It happens from taking too much prescription or over-the-counter pain medications for another type of headache, or taking it too often. This results in a vicious cycle as the medication wears off and rebound pain leads you to use more each time. Some people get rebound headaches every day for weeks, and it can be difficult to stop the pain cycle without a doctor’s help.
You can prevent many headaches by avoiding activities that trigger them. The solution to an ice cream headache is the classic example – don’t eat ice cream. Also stay away from other very cold foods and drinks, and don’t dive into cold water, since that’s another trigger for ice cream headaches, aka cold-stimulus headache. The exact mechanism for these headaches isn’t known, but they may result from sudden constriction of blood vessels that relax soon after.
Avoiding triggers can also help with other types of headache. People with migraines can minimize attacks by not eating certain foods, getting enough sleep and staying away from bright lights and other triggers that have been a problem in the past. For tension headaches, it can help to reduce daily stress as much as possible.
If you do get a headache, home treatment can ease some of the pain. Try heat or ice packs, relaxing in a quiet room or getting a head and neck massage. Over-the-counter pain medications can also help, but don’t overdo it. Experts recommend taking acetaminophen for headache no more than twice a week and NSAIDs (Advil, Motrin, aspirin and others) no more than 15 days a month.
For some headaches, it’s important to see your doctor. Schedule a visit soon if you headaches are more painful than usual or occur more often. Headaches that don’t get better with over-the-counter medicine also warrant a doctor visit, especially if they keep you home from work or disturb your sleep.
You should also know when to get emergency medical care. If you get a sudden, severe headache or one that feels like the worst headache of your life, go to a hospital emergency department or call 9-1-1. This type of pain can be a symptom of a serious underlying condition such as stroke, meningitis or aneurysm. You should also get emergency care if your headache starts right after a head injury or a strenuous activity like weightlifting or aerobics, or if it is accompanied by.
- Weakness or numbness on one side of your body.
- Slurred speech, loss of balance or trouble seeing.
- High fever or stiff neck.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Confusion or trouble understanding speech.
You can learn more about headaches, and how to avoid and treat them, by visiting the American Headache Society at americanheadachesociety.org.