Healthy Reads

Headaches Can Come in Various Forms

Posted by Jennifer Ferguson, M.D. on Mar 1, 2015

Taxes, your kid's band practice, unexpected weekends at the office, summer travel traffic.

What do they all have in common? They can all force you to pop two pain relievers, take three deep breaths and stare at the beach sunset on your laptop's screensaver until the dull throbbing subsides. 

Almost anything can cause a headache, from stress and sleep deprivation to more serious medical conditions you might never have considered.

You're most likely familiar with the primary variety of headaches, including the steady ache of the mildly painful tension headache, which last at most for 30 minutes and can be a random occurrence or continue for a week.

Migraines are the next step up and can cause moderate to severe pain, but usually only on one side of your head. They can last from four to 72 hours and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and changes in vision.

Cluster headaches are much rarer and are the most severe form of primary headache. They are usually accompanied by a runny nose, tearing of the eyes and sweating on the same side of the head as the headache. Cluster headaches last from 15 minutes to three hours and occur in a pattern or "cluster" for up to several weeks.

Secondary headaches, meanwhile, are brought on by medication overuse or manifested through pre-existing conditions you might not even know you have. Examples include high blood pressure, tumors, stroke, head trauma, nerve disorders, hormonal changes and stress.

There are three options for treating common primary headaches. The first focuses on changing behavior, such as maintaining consistent sleep patterns, meal times, exercise schedules and managing stress in a healthy manner. The next option is acute therapy, in other words, achieving relief through prescription or over-the-counter analgesics or Triptans, the class of drugs used most commonly to treat migraines.

Finally, there's the preventive route, which in terms of headache management could include limiting caffeine and pain medication, shifting work schedules or even engaging in calm, relaxing activities such as yoga or meditation.

If you've exhausted these options, and a new headache persists for a prolonged period, it's time to schedule an appointment with your physician. The need for a timely visit is further compounded for children or those 50 or older when there is a change in the frequency or pattern of headaches, when it coincides with a recent head injury or if it's "the worst" headache you've ever experienced. A stiff neck, fever, nausea or vomiting are additional signs that what you thought was a routine headache might require some extra attention from your family doctor.

Headaches cause millions of Americans to miss work and simply not enjoy life to the fullest. By recognizing the difference between routine tension headache flare-ups and the more serious ones — and how to alleviate both — you have one fewer reason to get a headache during your well-deserved summer vacation.

To learn about how concierge medicine can help with simple issues like heachaches, download our free eBook:

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Topics: Medical Perspectives

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