At some point, just about everyone has experienced the pain and frustration of a headache. But for an ailment that affects nearly everyone at any age, headaches—and the best ways to treat them—still aren’t fully understood.
“We don’t know 100-percent why one person gets, say, a migraine headache, and someone else doesn’t,” says Dace Zvirbulis, M.D., a neurologist with Henry Ford Health. “We do know, though that a migraine is a genetic neurologic disease. Patients with migraine headache have a brain that is more sensitive and susceptible to environmental changes, which can trigger a migraine attack.”
Neurologists divide headaches into two categories: Primary headaches and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are the kind that most people are familiar with and are not due to any other cause. They’re common, non-threatening, recurrent headaches and comprise about 90 percent of headache cases. Secondary headaches are those caused by a separate medical condition such as a concussion or brain tumor.
Below, Dr. Zvirbulis describes the different types of primary headaches, including their causes, symptoms, and how to (hopefully) avoid them.
Characterized by mild to moderate pain, a tension headache typically affects the whole head, though many feel tightness or pressure specifically in the forehead. They typically last anywhere from 30 minutes to a few days, but the pain is rarely so severe that people cannot go about their daily lives.
- Symptoms: Tightness in the forehead. Dull head pain.
- Triggers: The number one cause of tension headaches is stress, followed by changes in weather.
- Treatment: Rest. Relaxation. Meditation. Over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If tension headaches become more frequent, daily preventive medication can help decrease frequency.
The vast majority of headaches that doctors treat are migraines—intense, throbbing headaches that often affect one side of the head and can be debilitating. To date, a migraine is understood to be a disorder of the brain. They affect about 12 percent of the population and are three times more common in women than men.
- Symptoms: Moderate to severe pain. Sensitivity to light and sound. Nausea/vomiting. Vision problems. Numbness or tingling in the arm, leg or one side of the face. Occasionally speech problems. Simple activities such as walking or going up the stairs can make symptoms worse.
- Triggers: Stress. Weather changes. Hormone changes. Food or drink (aged cheese, processed meat, alcohol, and MSG). Lack of sleep. Dehydration or skipping meals. Migraines are also known to be genetic, so if someone in your family gets frequent migraines, you may be likely to get them as well.
- Treatment: Rest. Relaxation. Meditation. Medications to treat acute migraine attacks and also to decrease migraine frequency. There are also FDA approved devices available for migraine treatment.
In the past, cluster headaches have been called suicide headaches because the pain can be so severe and disabling. They always occur on one side of the head, usually around the eye.
- Symptoms: Restlessness. Tearing of the eye. Runny or stuffy nose. Droopy eyelid on the side of the head with pain.
- Triggers: Unknown, though alcohol is known to make a cluster period worse.
- Treatment: Administering oxygen inhalation can be the quickest way to quell a cluster headache. Medication such as oral steroids, nasal spray or injectables and some FDA approved devices can also help.
Similar to a cluster headache, hemicrania headaches typically involve one side of the head and may appear as multiple episodes a day—anywhere from 5 to 40, lasting for about 2 to 30 minutes each.
- Symptoms: A one-sided headache that can recur daily and last for months or years.
- Triggers: Unknown.
- Treatment: Hemicrania headaches tend to respond only to one type of medicine: Indomethacin.
While it can be difficult to determine the seriousness of a headache, it’s important to monitor your symptoms and the frequency with which they occur. A few criteria to consider?
“If you’re experiencing a headache more than three times a week or if headaches do not respond to the treatment or if they are getting more frequent or feel different from the previous headaches, it’s time to consult a doctor,” Dr. Zvirbulis says.
Are you seeking relief from debilitating headaches? Make an appointment with a primary care doctor at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD.
Dr. Dace Zvirbulis specializes in neurology and sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield.