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All About Headache: Types of Headaches and Causes of Headaches

A headache is a common ailment that has afflicted mankind for several centuries. There are studies which prove that even pet dogs have displayed symptoms of a migraine headache and so by extension, we can assume that headaches have been around of thousands of years and have impacted both humans and mammals.

The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks have all recorded instances of very painful headaches, and ancient Islamic philosophers have described migraine in great detail, also explaining ways to get relief from the pain and have also done some research on the root cause. The study of headaches continues even today, and surprisingly, there are still many unsolved questions related to its origin and occurrence. Nowadays, the research efforts are spearheaded by IHS (International Headache Society), a charitable organisation, which was founded in England in the year 1991.

According to WHO (World Health Organization), there are over 250 types of headaches, broadly classified into primary and secondary. Secondary headaches are just symptoms of some other underlying issue whereas a primary headache is an ailment in itself.

Headaches can be loosely categorised into eight types, and the majority of the headaches fall into this category:

Types of Headaches and Causes of Headaches

1. Migraines

‘A migraine’ is derived from the Latin word ‘hemikrania’, which roughly means half the skull (hemi – half, krania – skull). It is a severe and often unbearable headache, mostly affecting just one side of the head. Nausea, visual disturbances, sensitivity to light, smell, taste and dizziness usually accompany it. A migraine attack can last for hours to days and can be severely debilitating. Over the Counter medication such as ibuprofen, home remedies and resting in a dark room can alleviate the symptoms to some extent. A migraine is thought to be a hereditary disease with several triggers like stress, eating spoilt or junk food, not eating on time, excessive drinking, hormonal changes in women, medications, and sometimes even extreme weather changes. People prone to having migraines usually have a family history, are in their 30 (migraines get less frequent after that) or are undergoing hormonal changes. Medications, Regular exercise, drinking lots of water, a daily schedule and lots of rest can reduce the impact of this painful headache. A lot of people are unable to differentiate migraine vs normal headache.

2. Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches is one of the most prevalent forms of a headache. Most people get it at some point in their lifetime. It is a dull, constant, hammering pain engulfing both sides of the head and can last from half an hour to several hours. Tension headaches are not as severe as migraines and do not hamper day to day activities of the individual usually. The stiffness of the face, neck, head, and shoulders sometimes accompany them. There is also a pressure behind the eyes and sensitivity to light and sound. As the name suggests, tension and stress usually trigger this type of headache. Other triggers include depression, dehydration, lack of sleep, exercise, bad posture, poor eating, and eye strain. Over the counter medicine such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen usually cure or reduce a headache. But the best solution to this headache is similar to that of a migraine. A disciplined lifestyle with good eating habits can go a long way to prevent these headaches.

3. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a severe and reoccurring class of headaches which manifests as an intensely excruciating pain at the edge or behind an eye. Symptoms like agitation, swollen eyelids and watering nose. Cluster headaches get their name from the fact that it can occur several times in a day, each attack lasting from 15 minutes to 3 hours. This cluster headache can persist for weeks together, often occur after falling asleep. The trigger for cluster headaches is not clear, but it tends to occur more in men in their 30s and 40s and especially those who smoke or consume alcohol. People who get cluster headaches are genetically predisposed to it. The neurologist might prescribe medications like melatonin and verapalmin or surgery in very serious cases. There is even an organisation called OUCH (Organization for Understanding Cluster Headaches) which deals with the prevention and treatment.

4. Hypnic Headaches

A hypnic headache is a primary headache which is rare and occurs later in life while people are asleep. It is also known as the alarm-clock headache as it is severe enough to shake the patient out of sleep. These headaches occur often and only during the night. They vary from 15 minutes to 4 hours after waking up. Ironically, caffeine is usually considered as an antidote for this type of a headache. There is medicine like melatonin, lithium carbonate etc. which is available for treating the headache.

5. Sinus headaches

This category of headaches is usually caused by swelling of the sinus, and it usually occurs in people who have sinus and are affected by an allergy or an infection. Sinus headaches are usually accompanied by yellow discharge from the nose, fever and nausea. Sinus can be treated in the initial stage by OTC medicine like nasal drops etc. If the symptoms continue to persist for more than a week, a visit to the doctor is advised. He will probably prescribe antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection.

6. Induced Headaches, Ex: Caffeine related, hangover headaches.

These are a common form of secondary headaches. They can occur if a person is addicted to a daily dose of caffeine and who suddenly abstains from it. This dull, throbbing headache is accompanied by difficulty in concentrating, irritability and nausea. It goes away within an hour of consuming caffeine or if a person can somehow manage to go without caffeine for a week. Similarly, consuming too much of alcohol can result in a hangover headache soon after. This headache can be reduced by drinking plenty of water and over the counter medicine. These are temporary headaches which tend to go away within three days at the maximum. These headaches can be prevented by consuming alcohol in moderation.

7. Other forms of a headache

Other types of primary headaches can be caused due to hormonal changes, menstruation, use of oral contraceptives and pregnancy. This headache is very similar to a migraine, but it occurs without the changes in vision and can be very severe. They can also last longer than a migraine usually does. Doctors usually prescribe medicine such as triptan which can reduce the severity of the attack to some extent.

8. Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches occur as a symptom due to another underlying reason like a head injury or a neurological disorder. These headaches are of different types, and they manifest in different forms. Post-traumatic headaches occur after the injury and can last up to months. Another form of a secondary headache is what results from the overuse of medical painkillers. Drug abuse, overuse of prescribed drugs, results in a severe headache and can be stopped by talking to your doctor. Suddenly stopping the use of medical drugs will result in an intensely severe headache for a week after which there will be a natural relief. Other withdrawal symptoms which go away with time are nausea, anxiety, restlessness, and vomiting. Secondary headaches can be avoided with proper care and avoiding over usage of medicines, especially painkillers. These headaches are a side effect of it.

When to see a doctor?

Most headaches are temporary, and if bearable, can be managed by drinking water, sitting in a quiet environment, or taking rest. Over the counter medicine like ibuprofen, melatonin etc. which are primarily painkillers can be taken for instant relief. However, some conditions must be treated medically. A doctor should be consulted immediately if:

  1. The headache is unbearable, sudden, and very severe.
  2. The symptoms which accompany it are severe such as nausea, dizziness, vomiting etc.
  3. The headaches occur in small children.
  4. There is stiffness, disturbed vision, balance, taste, smell, or speech impairment.
  5. The headaches are persistent and don’t go away despite rest and over the counter medication.

With today’s development in technology and the rapid increase of smartphones, more and more people have disturbed lifestyles due to excessive use of computer, TV and mobile phones. Because of this, there has been a spike in the occurrences of diseases due to poor lifestyle choices. We as responsible citizens must ensure that our loved ones get proper rest, food and company as good health is something that cannot be brought back or reconstructed, once lost. Ensuring a disciplined lifestyle is the key to wellness and good health, and it is us who must make a conscious decision to avoid poor health choices.

Sagar Papneja

For me, health is about sustainable living and consuming environmentally conscious food; I am a vegan.