When a headache is more than just a pain
Learn the common types of headaches, their treatments and when to call your doctor.
If you have headaches, you know how debilitating and intense they can be. Sometimes, an over-the-counter pain reliever is enough to dull the pain. But what if you need more?
“There are actually hundreds of different types of headaches, all with different causes and treatments,” says Abigail Chua, DO, a neurologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. “It’s also important to remember that headaches can occur in children as well, not just adults.”
When you understand the type of headache you have, you can treat it more effectively. Here are some of the common headache types and what treatments may work for each one.
A tension or stress headache is the most common type of headache. “These headaches cause noticeable pressure and tightness on both sides of your head, can occasionally be caused by stress and the pain comes and goes,” says Dr. Chua.
Tension headaches are typically treated with an over-the-counter pain reliever. Some people also find relief by exercising, taking a hot shower or taking a short nap.
A migraine is a neurologic disease that causes painful headaches as well as other symptoms.
Migraine symptoms can include:
- Pounding, throbbing pain
- Visual changes, like blurred vision or bright flashing lights
- Pressure in your face that feels like a sinus infection
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Nausea or vomiting
Some migraine attacks are associated with triggers, including:
- Changes in the weather
- Lack of sleep
- Emotional stress
- Loud noises
- Strong smells
- Missing a meal
- A change in caffeine, alcohol or chocolate consumption
“If a migraine is caught early, it can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers,” says Dr. Chua. “However, some people with migraine headaches may also require treatment with prescription medications.”
Cluster headaches are considered the most severe type of headache, and people typically have piercing or stabbing pain behind one eye when they have an attack. People with cluster headaches usually feel restless during their attacks and can’t sit still.
Treatment for cluster headaches can include injected medications, inhaled oxygen or steroids. Preventive medications can help in some cases.
Rebound headaches, also called medication-overuse, or medication adaptation, headaches, can develop because of regular, long-term use of medications that treat headaches, including migraine.
Taking pain relievers to treat headaches on a regular basis for a longer period, usually three months or more, can actually trigger daily rebound headaches.
The good news? Once you stop taking the medication causing your headaches, the rebound headaches usually subside. However, people with a rebound headache can also have a migraine, so the migraine attacks may continue to occur.
When to worry about headache pain
While most headaches are treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, there are some symptoms and warning signs that may need more attention.
Call your doctor or seek emergency medical attention if you notice:
- A sudden or significant change in the pattern of your headaches.
- Headaches that are accompanied by weight loss, slurred speech, vision change, weakness, numbness, seizures or cognitive dysfunction.
- A headache along with a stiff neck, fever, nausea, vomiting, confusion or decreased alertness.
- Headaches following a blow to the head. Always seek medical attention immediately if you experience this.
- Exceptionally bad pain that you haven’t felt before.
- Headaches when you wake up that get worse when you move, cough or lift weights.
While it’s rare to have any of these symptoms, don’t ignore them if you feel your headache isn’t normal. They could indicate medical emergencies that need immediate care.
“It’s always better to be safe than sorry,” says Dr. Chua. “A doctor will conduct the appropriate tests to confirm whether your headache is just a headache or something more.”
Meet Abigail Chua, DO
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