Headaches explained

Friday, November 19, 2010
Image: Thinkstock
In the grand scheme of things, of all the possible health complaints, a headache usually will not get you much sympathy. (Perhaps others automatically assume you overdid it last night.) But if you are one of the many unlucky people who gets severe or frequent headaches, you know how they really ruin your day or week. They can leave you searching desperately for an answer.

People have different triggers for their headaches, and a headache can be any one of a number of types, causing pain in the head, upper neck and face — some affect women more often, some affect men more often.

It is common for headaches to be triggered by stress, lack of fresh air, hunger, particular foods such as cheese or chocolate, eye strain, poor posture, too much alcohol, high blood pressure, hormones and caffeine withdrawal.

The main types of headache are tension headache, migraine, cluster headache and chronic daily headache.

  • Tension headache is the most common headache.
  • Migraine is usually more severe and affects about 15 percent of people at some time.
  • Cluster headache is generally more frequent in men.
  • Women can also get hormonal headache, which tends to occur at the same time during each menstrual cycle.
  • And chronic daily headache can continue for months and is sometimes caused by the overuse of certain simple pain relief medicines (analgesics) or migraine drugs — this may sound odd but their overuse can help establish the headache pattern.

Read more about the different types of headache and their treatment.

Is my lifestyle part of the reason for my headaches?
Lifestyle changes can also help to prevent headaches. Getting more exercise, reducing stress where possible and avoiding headache triggers, improving your sleep and improving your diet can all help you have fewer headaches.

Do I need to see a doctor?
Most headaches are not a cause for concern but an examination by your doctor will help you find effective ways to minimise their impact on your life.

There are some circumstances when it is a good idea to get help.

  • When headaches are frequent, persistent or get worse.
  • When you take simple pain relievers more than twice week.
  • When you get no relief from simple pain relievers.

And then there are some circumstances when urgent attention is advised:

  • When you have a really severe headache 'out of the blue'.
  • When you were headache-free but now get them.
  • When you have nausea, a stiff neck, rash, fever, shakes or are sensitive to light (warning signs of meningococcal disease or meningitis).
  • When you have lost sensation, control or strength, even if only briefly.
  • When your speech is slurred or vision altered, even if only briefly.
  • When you have confusion, fits or blackouts.
  • When your headache follows a head injury.
  • When your headache is triggered by standing up, coughing, straining, physical exertion or sexual intercourse.
  • When you are over 50 and start to get regular headaches or there is face or jaw pain.
  • When the headache affects a young child.

As with all health problems, see your doctor if you do have any concerns.

Article provided by UBM Medica (NZ) Ltd. For more health information and advice visit everybody.co.nz and liveto100.co.nz.

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