Headache is a pain in the head and neck region that may be either a disorder in its own right or a symptom of an underlying medical condition or disease. The medical term for headache is cephalalgia. Headaches are one of the most common and universal human ailments, described in the Bible as well as in medical writings from ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, India, and China. Severe chronic headaches were once treated by the oldest known surgical procedure, known as trepanning or trephining, in which the surgeon drilled a hole as large as 1–2 in diameter in the patient's skull without benefit of anesthesia. Evidence of trepanning has been found in skulls from Cro-Magnon people that are about 40,000 years old.
Contemporary doctors divide headaches into two large categories, primary and secondary, according to guidelines established by the International Headache Society (IHS) in 1988 and revised for republication in 2004. Primary headaches are those that are not caused by an underlying medical condition. There are three types of primary headaches: migraine, cluster, and tension headaches. More than 90% of all headaches are primary headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by disease or medical condition; they account for fewer than 10% of all headaches.
MIGRAINE HEADACHES Migraine headaches are characterized by throbbing or pulsating pain of moderate or severe intensity lasting from four hours to as long as three days. The pain is typically felt on one side of the head; in fact, the English word "migraine" is a combination of two Greek words that mean "half" and "head." Migraine headaches become worse with physical activity and are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In addition, patients with migraine headaches are hypersensitive to lights, sounds, and odors.
The two most common types of migraines are known as classic and common migraine, respectively. Classic migraine, which accounts for 10–20% of the cases of migraine, is distinguished by a brief period of warning symptoms 10–60 minutes before an acute attack. This prodrome, which is known as an aura, may include such symptoms as seeing flashing lights or zigzag patterns, temporary loss of vision, difficulty speaking, weakness in an arm or leg, and tingling sensations in the face or hands. Common migraine is not preceded by an aura, although some patients experience mood changes, unusual tiredness, or fluid retention shortly before an attack. An attack of common migraine may include diarrhea and frequent urination, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Less common types of migraines include hemiplegic migraine, characterized by temporary paralysis on one side of the body; ophthalmoplegic migraine, in which the pain is felt in the area around the eye; basilar artery migraine, which involves a major artery at the base of the brain and primarily affects young women; and headache-free migraine, which is characterized by the gastrointestinal and visual symptoms of classic migraine, but does not involve head pain.
CLUSTER HEADACHES Cluster headaches are recurrent brief attacks of sudden and severe pain on one side of the head, usually most intense in the area around the eye. Other names for these headaches include histamine cephalalgia, Horton neuralgia, or erythromelalgia. Cluster headaches may last between five minutes and three hours; they may occur once every other day or as often as eight times per day. The IHS classifies cluster headaches as either episodic or chronic. Episodic cluster headaches occur over periods lasting from seven days to one year, with the clusters separated by headache-free intervals of at least two weeks. The average length of a cluster ranges between two weeks and three months. Chronic cluster headaches occur over a period longer than a year without a headache-free interval, or with pain-free intervals that are shorter than two weeks.
The pain of a cluster headache is excruciating; some patients describe it as severe enough to make them consider suicide. Patients with cluster headaches are restless; they may pace the floor, weep, rock back and forth, or bang their heads against a wall in desperation to stop the pain. In addition to severe pain, patients with cluster headaches often have a runny or congested nose, watery or inflamed eyes, drooping eyelids, swelling in the area of the eyebrows, and heavy facial perspiration. Because of the nasal symptoms and the relative rarity of cluster headaches, these episodes have sometimes been misdiagnosed as sinusitis.
TENSION HEADACHES Tension headaches are the most common headaches in the general population; other names for them include muscle contraction headache, ordinary headache, psychomyogenic headache, and stress headache. The IHS classifies tension headaches as either episodic or chronic; episodic tension headaches occur 15 or fewer times per month, whereas chronic tension headaches occur on 15 or more days per month over a period of six months or longer.
Tension headaches rarely last more than a few hours; 82% resolve in less than a day. The patient will usually describe the pain of a tension headache as mild to moderate in severity. The doctor will not find anything abnormal in the course of a general physical or neurological examination, although sore or tense areas (trigger points) in the
muscles of the patient's forehead, neck, or upper shoulder area may be detected.
REBOUND HEADACHES Rebound headaches, which are also known as analgesic-abuse headaches, are a subtype of primary headache caused by overuse of headache drugs. They may be associated with medications taken for tension and migraine headaches.
Secondary headaches, which are caused by diseases or disorders, are categorized as either traction or inflammatory headaches. Traction headaches result from the pulling, stretching, or displacing of structures that are sensitive to pain, as when a brain tumor presses on the outer layer of nerve tissue that covers the brain. Inflammatory headaches are caused by infectious diseases of the ears, teeth, sinuses, or other parts of the head.
Major causes of secondary headaches include the following:
- Brain tumors. Headaches associated with brain tumors usually begin as episodic nighttime headaches that are accompanied by projectile vomiting. The headaches may become continuous over time, and usually get worse if the patient coughs, sneezes, bears down while using the toilet, or does something else that increases the pressure inside the head.
- Meningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges , the three layers of membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria or viruses, and may produce chronic headaches.
- Head trauma. Patients may complain of headaches as well as memory problems, general irritability, and fatigue for months or even years after a head injury. These symptoms are sometimes grouped together as post-concussion syndrome. In some cases, a blow on the head may cause some blood vessels to rupture and produce a hematoma, or mass of blood that displaces brain tissue, and can cause seizures or weakness as well as headaches.
- Temporal arteritis . First described in 1890, temporal arteritis is an inflammation of the temporal artery that most commonly affects people over 50. In addition to headache, patients with temporal arteritis may have fever, loss of appetite, and blurring or loss of vision. Temporal arteritis is treated with steroid medications.
- Stroke . Headaches may be associated with several conditions that may lead to stroke, including high blood pressure and heart disease. Headaches may also result from completed stroke or from the mini-strokes known as transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs.
- Lumbar puncture. About 25% of patients who undergo a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) develop a headache from the lowered cerebrospinal fluid pressure around the brain and spinal cord. Lumbar puncture headaches usually go away on their own after a few hours.
- Sinus infections. Acute sinusitis is characterized by fluid buildup inside sinus cavities inflamed by a bacterial or viral infection. Chronic sinusitis usually results from an allergic reaction to smoke, dust, animal fur, or similar irritants.
- Referred pain. This type of pain is felt in a part of the body at a distance from the injured or diseased area. Headache pain may be referred from diseased teeth; disks in the cervical spine that have been damaged by spondylosis (degeneration of the spinal vertebrae caused by osteoarthritis); or the temporomandibular joint, the small joint in front of the ear where the lower jaw is attached to the skull.
- Idiopathic intracranial hypertension. Also known as pseudotumor cerebri , this disorder is caused by increased pressure inside the skull in the absence of any abnormality of the central nervous system or blockage in the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid. In addition to headache, patients with this disorder experience diplopia (seeing double) and other visual symptoms.
Headaches in general are very common in the adult population in North America. The American Council for Headache Education (ACHE) estimates that 95% of women and 90% of men in the United States and Canada have had at least one headache in the past 12 months. Most of these are tension headaches. Tension headaches may begin in childhood in some patients, but most commonly start in adolescence or the early 20s. The gender ratio for episodic tension headaches is about 1.4 F:1 M; for chronic tension headaches, 1.9 F:1 M.
Migraine and cluster headaches have distinctive demographic patterns. Migraine headaches are less common than tension headaches, affecting about 11% of the population in the United States and 15% in Canada. Several studies done in the United Kingdom and the United States, however, indicate that doctors tend to underdiagnose migraine headache; thus the true number of patients with migraine may be considerably higher than the usual statistics indicate. Migraines are a major economic burden; it is estimated that the annual cost of time lost from work due to migraines in the United States alone is $17.2 billion. Most people who experience migraines have their first episode in childhood or adolescence, although some experience their first migraine after age 20. Migraines occur most frequently in adults between the ages of 25 and 55; the gender ratio is about 3 F:1 M. Although migraine headaches occur in people of all races and ethnic groups, they are thought to affect Caucasians more often than African or Asian Americans.
Currently, migraine is the only type of primary headache known to run in families. A child with one parent affected by migraines has a 50% chance of developing migraines as an adult; if both parents are affected, the risk rises to 70%. Although geneticists think that a number of different genes are involved in transmitting a susceptibility to migraine, they have recently identified two specific loci on human chromosomes 1 and 14, respectively, that are linked to migraine headaches. The locus on chromosome 1q23 has been linked to familial hemiplegic migraine type 2, while the locus on chromosome 14q21 is associated with common migraine.
Cluster headaches are the least common type of primary headaches, affecting about 0.4% of adult males in the United States and 0.08% of adult females. The gender ratio is 5–7.5 M:1 F. Cluster headaches occur most commonly in adults between the ages of 20 and 40. It is not currently known whether cluster headaches are more common in some racial or ethnic groups than in others; however, many patients with cluster headaches have a history of face or head trauma.
The demographics of secondary headaches vary depending on the disease or disorder that causes the headache.
Causes and symptoms
PHYSICAL A person feels headache pain when specialized nerve endings known as nociceptors are stimulated by pressure on or injury to any of the pain-sensitive structures of the head. Most nociceptors in humans are located in the skin or in the walls of blood vessels and internal organs; the bones of the skull and the brain itself do not contain nociceptors.
The specific parts of the head that are sensitive to pain include:
- the skin that covers the skull and cervical spine
- the 5th, 9th, and 10th cranial nerves and the nerves that supply the upper part of the neck the venous sinuses inside the head
- the large arteries at the base of the brain
- the large arteries that supply the dura mater, which is the outermost of the three meninges (membranes) that cover the brain and spinal cord
- the portion of the dura mater at the base of the skull
Tension headaches typically result from tightening of the muscles of the face, neck, and scalp as a result of emotional stress; physical postures that cause the head and neck muscles to tense (e.g., holding a phone against the ear with one's shoulder); depression or anxiety; temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ); or degenerative arthritis of the neck. The tense muscles put pressure on the walls of the blood vessels that supply the neck and head, which stimulates the nociceptors in the tissues that line the blood vessels. In addition, the nociceptors in patients with chronic tension headaches appear to be abnormally sensitive to stimulation.
The pathophysiology of migraine headaches has been debated among doctors since the 1940s. Some researchers think that migraines are the end result of a magnesium deficiency in the brain or of hypersensitivity to a neuro-transmitter known as dopamine. Another theory holds that certain nerve cells in the brain cortex become unusually excitable and depolarize (lose their electrical potential) spontaneously, releasing potassium and glutamate, an amino acid. These substances then depolarize nearby nerve cells, resulting in a chain reaction known as cortical-spreading depression (CSD). CSD then leads to changes in the amount of blood flowing through the blood vessels and stimulation of their nociceptors, resulting in severe headache. More recently, the discovery of specific genes associated with migraine indicates that genetic mutations are responsible for the abnormal excitability of the nerve cells in the brains of patients with migraine.
Little is known about the causes of cluster headaches or changes in the central nervous system that produce them.
PSYCHOLOGICAL Chronic headaches are often associated with anxiety, depression, or a specific group of mental disorders known as somatoform disorders. These disorders include hypochondriasis and pain disorder; they are characterized by physical symptoms (frequently headache) that suggest that the patient has a general medical condition, but there is no diagnosable disease or disorder that fully accounts for the patient's symptoms. The relationship between psychological and physical factors in headaches is complex in that headaches may be either the cause or result of emotional disturbances, or both. Some patients find that chronic headaches disappear completely after a stressful family- or job-related situation has been resolved.
Most headaches are not associated with serious or life-threatening illnesses. Patients should, however, immediately call their primary physician if they have any of the following symptoms:
- three or more headaches per week
- need for a pain reliever every day or almost every day
- need for greater than recommended doses of over-thecounter medications (OTCs)
- stiff neck or fever accompanying the headache
- shortness of breath, hearing problems, blurry vision, or severe sore throat
- dizziness, weakness, slurred speech, mental confusion, or drowsiness headache following a head injury that is not relieved by OTCs
- headache triggered by exercise , coughing, sexual activity, or bending over
- persistent or violent vomiting
- change in the character of the headaches—for example, persistent severe headaches in a person who has previously had only mild headaches of brief duration
- recurrent headaches in a child
- recurrent severe headaches, beginning after age 50
The differential diagnosis of headaches begins with a complete patient history, including a family history. In many cases, a primary care physician can make the diagnosis on the basis of the history. The doctor will ask the patient about head injuries or surgery on the head; eye problems or disorders; sinus infections; dental problems or extensive oral surgery; and medications that the patient is taking regularly.
After taking the history, the doctor will ask the patient to describe the location and type of pain that he or she experiences during the headache. People who have tension headaches will typically describe the pain as "viselike," "tightening," "pressing," or as a steady or constant ache. Patients with migraine headaches, on the other hand, will usually say that the pain has a "throbbing" or "pulsating" character, while patients with cluster headaches describe the pain as "penetrating" or "piercing." About 85% of patients with tension headaches experience pain on both sides of the head, most commonly in the area around the forehead and temples. Patients with migraine or cluster headaches, however, are more likely to feel pain on only one side of the head.
Some primary care physicians give the patient a printed questionnaire that consists of 50–55 brief yes/no questions that cover such matters as the timing and frequency of the headaches; whether other family members have the same type of headache; whether the patient feels depressed; whether the headaches are related to changes in the weather; and so on. The answers to the questions will usually fall into a pattern that tells the doctor whether the patient has migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, or headaches with other causes. The doctor may also ask the patient to keep a headache diary to help identify foods, stress, lack of sleep, weather, and other factors that may trigger headaches.
It is possible for patients to have more than one type of headache. For example, patients with chronic tension headaches often have migraine headaches as well.
The physical examination helps the doctor identify other symptoms and signs that may be relevant to the diagnosis, such as fever; difficulty breathing; nausea or vomiting; stiff neck; changes in vision or hearing; watering or inflammation of the nose and eyes; evidence of head trauma; skin rashes or other indications of an infectious disease; and abnormalities in the structure or alignment of the patient's spinal column, teeth or jaw. In some cases, the doctor may refer the patient to a dentist, oral surgeon, or endodontist for a more detailed evaluation of the patient's mouth and jaw.
Some laboratory tests are useful in identifying headaches caused by infections or by such disorders as anemia or thyroid disease. These tests include a complete blood count (CBC); erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR); and blood serum chemistry profile.
Patients who report visual disturbances and other neurologic symptoms may be given visual field tests and have the pressure of the fluid inside their eyes (intraocular pressure) tested to check for glaucoma. A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) may be done to confirm a diagnosis of idiopathic intracranial hypertension.
Imaging studies may include x rays of the sinuses to check for sinus infections; and CT or MRI scans, which are done to rule out brain tumors and cerebral aneurysms .
Patients whose symptoms cannot be fully explained by the results of physical examinations and tests may be referred to a psychiatrist for evaluation of psychological factors related to their headaches.
TENSION HEADACHES Episodic tension headaches are usually relieved fairly rapidly by such over-the-counter analgesics as aspirin (300–600 mg every four hours), acetaminophen (650 mg every four hours), or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), usually ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve). The doctor may prescribe a tricyclic antidepressant or benzodiazepine tranquilizer in addition to a pain reliever for patients with chronic tension headaches. A newer treatment for chronic tension headaches is botulinum toxin (Botox type A), which appears to work very well for some patients. As of 2003, however, Botox has not yet been evaluated in controlled multicenter studies as a treatment for chronic headaches; the data obtained so far are derived from case reports and open-label studies.
MIGRAINE HEADACHES Medications can be prescribed to prevent migraines as well as to treat the symptoms of an acute attack. Drugs that are given for migraine prophylaxis (to prevent or lower the frequency of migraine attacks) include tricyclic antidepressants, beta-blockers, and anti-epileptic drugs, which are also known as anti-convulsants . As of 2003, sodium valproate (Epilim) is the only anticonvulsant approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of migraine. Such newer anticonvulsants as gabapentin (Neurontin) and topiramate (Topamax) are presently being evaluated as migraine preventives. Moreover, a new study reported that three drugs currently used to treat disorders of muscle tone are being explored as possible preventives for migraine—Botox, baclofen (Lioresal), and tizanidine (Zanaflex). Early results of open trials of these medications are positive.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) are helpful for early or mild migraines. More severe or unresponsive attacks may be treated with dihydroergota-mine; a group of drugs known as triptans; beta-blockers and calcium channel-blockers; antiseizure drugs; antidepressants (SSRIs); meperidine (Demerol); or metoclopramide (Reglan). Some of these are also available as nasal sprays, intramuscular injections, or rectal suppositories for patients with severe vomiting. Sumatriptan and the other triptan drugs (zolmitriptan, rizatriptan, naratriptan, almotriptan, and frovatriptan) should not be taken by patients with vascular disease, however, because they cause narrowing of the coronary arteries.
About 40% of all migraine attacks do not respond to treatment with triptans or any other medication. If the headache lasts longer than 72 hours—a condition known as status migrainosus—the patient may be given narcotic medications to bring on sleep and stop the attack. Patients with status migrainosus are often hospitalized because they are likely to be dehydrated from severe nausea and vomiting.
CLUSTER HEADACHES Medications that are given as prophylaxis for cluster headaches include verapamil (Calan, Isoptin, Verelan), which is a calcium channel blocker, and methysergide (Sansert), which is a derivative of ergot. A new study indicates that topiramate (Topamax), an anticonvulsant, is also effective in preventing cluster headaches. Sumatriptan (Imitrex) or indomethacin (Indameth, Indocin) may be prescribed to suppress an attack.
REBOUND HEADACHES Continued use of some pain relievers or antimigraine drugs can lead to rebound headaches, which may be frequent or chronic and often occur in the early morning hours. Rebound headache can be avoided by using antimigraine drugs or analgesics under a doctor's supervision, using only the minimum dose necessary to treat symptoms. Tizanidine (Zanaflex) has been reported to be effective in treating rebound headaches when taken together with an NSAID; Botox has also been used successfully in some patients.
Diet and lifestyle modifications
One measure that people can take to lower the risk of episodic tension headaches is to get enough sleep and eat nutritious meals at regular times. Skipping meals, using unbalanced fad diets to lose weight, and having insufficient or poor-quality sleep can bring on tension headaches. In fact, the common association of tension headaches with hunger, lack of sleep, heat, and sudden temperature extremes has led some researchers to suggest that headaches developed over the course of human evolution as an internal protective response to stress from the environment.
Changes in diet may be helpful to some patients with migraine, although some experts think that the role of foods in triggering migraines has been exaggerated. Women with migraines, however, often benefit by switching from oral contraceptives to another method of birth control or by discontinuing estrogen replacement therapy.
Patients with cluster headaches are advised to quit smoking and minimize their use of alcohol, because nicotine and alcohol appear to trigger cluster headaches. Currently, the precise connection between these chemicals and cluster attacks, however, is not completely understood.
Headaches that are caused by brain tumors, post-injury hematomas, dental problems, or disorders affecting the spinal disks usually require surgical treatment. Surgery may also be used to treat cases of idiopathic intracranial hypertension that do not respond to treatment with steroids, repeated lumbar punctures, or weight reduction.
Some plastic surgeons have reported success in treating patients with chronic migraines by removing some muscle tissue near the eyebrows, cutting a branch of the trigeminal nerve, and repositioning the soft tissue around the temples.
Psychotherapy may be helpful to patients with chronic headaches by interrupting the "feedback loop" between emotional upset and the physical symptoms of headaches. One type of psychotherapy that has been shown to be effective is cognitive restructuring, an approach that teaches people to reframe the problems in their lives—that is, to change their conscious attitudes and responses to these stressors. Some psychotherapists teach relaxation techniques, biofeedback, or other approaches to stress management as well as cognitive restructuring.
Complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments
There are a number of different CAM treatments for headache, but most fall into two major groups: those intended as prophylaxis or pain relief, and those that reduce the patient's stress level.
CAM therapies intended to prevent headaches or relieve discomfort include:
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium ). Feverfew is an herb related to the daisy that is traditionally used in England to prevent migraines. Published studies indicate that feverfew can reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines. It does not, however, relieve pain once the headache has begun.
- Butterbur root (Petasites hybridus ). Petadolex is a natural preparation made from butterbur root that has been sold in Germany since the 1970s as a migraine preventive. Petadolex has been available in the United States since December 1998.
- Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri ). Brahmi is a herb used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat headaches related to anxiety.
- Acupuncture . Studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) have found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for headache pain in many patients.
- Naturopathy. Naturopaths include dietary advice and nutritional therapy in their approach to treatment, which is often effective for patients with episodic or chronic tension headaches.
- Chiropractic. Some patients with tension or migraine headaches find spinal manipulation effective in relieving their pain; however, no controlled studies of the long-term effectiveness of chiropractic in treating headaches have been done as of 2003.
CAM therapies that are reported to be effective in reducing emotional stress related to headaches include:
- yoga and t'ai chi
- prayer and meditation
- hydrotherapy, particularly whirlpool baths
- Swedish massage and shiatsu
- pet therapy
- humor therapy
- music therapy
As of late 2003, there were three National Institutes of Health (NIH) trials recruiting patients with headaches: a study evaluating a new intranasal drug (civamide) for cluster headaches; a study of the effectiveness of biofeedback and relaxation training in patients with chronic migraine or tension headaches; and a study of migraine headaches in children.
The prognosis of primary headaches varies. Episodic tension headaches usually resolve completely in less than a day without affecting the patient's overall health. According to NIH statistics, 90% of patients with chronic tension or cluster headaches can be helped. The prognosis for patients with migraines, however, depends on whether the patient has one or more of the other disorders that are associated with migraine. These disorders include Tourette's syndrome, epilepsy , ischemic stroke, hereditary essential tremor, depression, anxiety, and others. For example, migraine with aura increases a person's risk of ischemic stroke by a factor of six.
The prognosis of secondary headaches depends on the seriousness and severity of their cause.
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NIH Neurological Institute. P. O. Box 5801, Bethesda, MD 20824. (301) 496-5751 or (800) 352-9424. <http://www.ninds.nih.gov>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
A headache is a pain in the head and neck region that may be either a disorder in its own right or a symptom
|Acupressure||Press pointer fingers beneath cheekbones and parallel to pupils (Stomach 3) for one minute. Squeeze fleshy area between thumb and pointer finger (Large Intestine 4) for one minute.||Sinus|
|Aromatherapy||Massage mixture of lavender oil and sunflower oil in temples, sides of eyes, behind ears, and on the neck. Do same using eucalyptus.||Migraine, tension, and sinus|
|Chiropractic||Spinal or cervical manipulation to realign posture.||Tension|
|Diet and exercise||Avoid chocolate, cheeses, citrus, red wine, and foods containing sodium nitrates or MSG. Exercise regularly.||Migraine|
|Herbal remedies||Feverfew, hawthorn, skullcap, ginger, goldenseal, valerian, passionflower, and cayenne.||Migraine and tension|
|Homeopathy||Belladonna, bryonia, kali bichromicum, and nux vomica.||Sinus and tension|
|Home remedies||Simultaneous ice pack/warm foot soak; drink three cold glasses of water; inhale pure oxygen.||Migraine and cluster|
|Mind/body||Meditation and relaxation and biofeedback.||Migraine|
|Osteopathy||Neuromuscular manipulation and massage of head, neck, and shoulders.||All|
of an underlying medical condition or disease. The medical term for headache is cephalalgia.
Headaches are divided into two large categories, primary and secondary, according to guidelines established by the International Headache Society (IHS) in 1988 and revised for republication in 2004. Primary headaches—accounting for more than 90% of all headaches—are not caused by an underlying medical condition. There are three major types of primary headaches: migraine, cluster, and tension. Secondary headaches are caused by another disease or medical condition, and account for fewer than 10% of headaches.
Rebound headaches, also known as analgesic abuse headaches, are a subtype of primary headache caused by overuse of headache drugs. They may be associated with medications taken for tension or migraine headaches.
Secondary headaches are classified as either traction or inflammatory headaches. Traction headaches result from the pulling, pushing, or stretching of pain-sensitive structures, such as a brain tumor pressing upon the outer layer of tissue that covers the brain. Inflammatory headaches are caused by infectious diseases of the ears, teeth, sinuses, or other parts of the head.
Headaches are very common in the North American adult population. The American Council for Headache Education (ACHE) estimates that 95% of women and 90% of men in the United States and Canada have had at least one headache in the past 12 months. Most of these are tension headaches. Migraine headaches are less common, affecting about 11% of the population in the United States and 15% in Canada. Several studies indicate that doctors tend to underdiagnose migraine headaches; thus the true number of patients with migraines may be considerably higher than the reported statistics. Cluster headaches are the least common type of primary headaches, affecting about 0.4% of adult males in the United States and 0.08% of adult females. Cluster headaches occur most commonly in adults between the ages of 20 and 40.
It is possible for patients to suffer from more than one type of headache. For example, patients with chronic tension headaches often have migraine headaches as well.
Causes & symptoms
A person feels headache pain when specialized nerve endings, known as nociceptors, are stimulated by pressure on or injury to any of the pain-sensitive structures of the head. Most nociceptors in humans are located in the skin or on the walls of blood vessels and internal organs. The bones of the skull and the brain itself do not contain these specialized pain receptors. The parts of the head that are sensitive to pain include the skin that covers the skull and upper spine; the 5th, 9th, and 10th cranial nerves, and the nerves that supply the upper part of the neck; and the large arteries located at the base of the brain, as well as those that supply the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
Tension headaches typically result from tightening of the face, neck, and scalp muscles as a result of emotional stress; physical postures that cause the head and neck muscles to tense (e.g., holding a phone against the ear with one's shoulder); emotional depression or anxiety ; temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction; or arthritis of the neck. The tense muscles put pressure on the walls of the blood vessels that supply the neck and head, which stimulates the nociceptors in the tissues that line the blood vessels.
The causes of migraine headaches have been debated since the 1940s. Some researchers think that migraines are the end result of a magnesium deficiency in the brain, or of hypersensitivity to a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) known as dopamine. Another theory is that certain nerve cells in the brain become unusually excitable, setting off a chain reaction that leads to changes in the amount of blood flowing through the blood vessels and stimulation of their nociceptors. Specific genes associated with migraines were recently discovered. This finding suggests that genetic mutations may be responsible for the abnormal excitability of the nerve cells in the brains of patients with migraine headaches.
As of 2004, little is known about the causes of cluster headaches or changes in the central nervous system that produce them. Patients with cluster headaches are advised to quit smoking and minimize their use of alcohol because nicotine and alcohol appear to trigger these headaches. The precise connection between these chemicals and cluster attacks is not yet completely understood.
Tension headaches are less severe than other types of primary headache. They rarely last more than a few hours; 82% resolve in less than a day. Patients usually describe the pain of a tension headache as mild to moderate. The doctor will not find anything abnormal in the course of a general physical examination, although he or she may detect sore or tense areas (trigger points) in the muscles of the patient's forehead, neck, or upper shoulder area.
Migraine headaches are characterized by throbbing or pulsating pain of moderate or severe intensity lasting from four hours to as long as three days. The pain is typically felt on one side of the head; in fact, the English word "migraine" is a combination of two Greek words that mean "half" and "head." Migraine headaches worsen
with physical activity, and are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting . Patients with migraine headaches are hypersensitive to lights, sounds, and odors.
Cluster headaches are recurrent brief attacks of sudden and severe pain on one side of the head. The pain is usually most intense in the area around the eye. Cluster headaches may last between five minutes and three hours, and may occur once every other day or as often as eight times per day. Some patients describe it as severe enough to make them consider suicide. Patients may pace the floor, weep, rock back and forth, or bang their heads against a wall in desperate attempts to stop the pain. In addition to severe pain, patients often have a runny or congested nose, watery or inflamed eyes, drooping eyelids, swelling in the area of the eyebrows, and heavy facial perspiration. Because of the nasal symptoms and the relative rarity of cluster headaches, they are sometimes misdiagnosed as sinusitis.
The differential diagnosis of headaches begins with a careful patient history that includes information about head injuries or surgery on the head; eye problems or disorders; sinus infections ; dental problems or extensive oral surgery; and medications that the patient takes regularly. Some primary care physicians give the patient a printed questionnaire that consists of 50–55 brief questions covering such matters as the timing and frequency of the headaches; family history of the same type of headache; signs of depression; correlation between headaches and weather changes; and so on. The doctor may also ask the patient to keep a headache diary to help identify foods, stress, lack of sleep, weather, and other factors that may trigger the pain.
A physical examination helps the doctor identify signs and symptoms that may be relevant to the diagnosis such as fever ; difficulty breathing; nausea or vomiting; stiff neck; changes in vision or hearing; watering or inflammation of the nose and eyes; evidence of head trauma; skin rashes or other indications of an infectious disease; and abnormalities in the structure or alignment of the spinal column, teeth or jaw. In some cases, the doctor may refer the patient to a dentist or oral surgeon for a more detailed evaluation of the mouth and jaw.
Special tests and imaging studies
Laboratory tests are useful in identifying headaches caused by infections, anemia , or thyroid disease. These tests include a complete blood count (CBC); erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR); and blood serum chemistry profile. Patients who report visual disturbances and other neurologic symptoms may be given visual field tests and screened for glaucoma (a condition involving high fluid pressure inside the eye). Imaging studies may include x rays of the sinuses to check for infections; and CT or MRI scans, which can rule out brain tumors and cerebral aneurysms. Patients whose symptoms cannot be fully explained by the results of physical examinations and tests may be referred to a psychiatrist for evaluation of psychological factors related to their headaches.
There are warning signs associated with headache that indicate the need for prompt medical attention. Patients with any of the following symptoms should see a physician at once:
- Three or more headaches per week.
- Need for a headache pain reliever every day or almost every day.
- Need for greater than recommended doses of over-the-counter (OTC) headache medications.
- Headache accompanied by one-sided weakness, numbness, visual loss, speech difficulty, or other signs.
- Headache that becomes worse over a period of six months, especially if most prominent in the morning or if accompanied by neurological symptoms.
- Sudden onset of headache accompanied by fever and stiff neck.
- Change in the character of the headaches—for example, persistent severe headaches in a person who has previously had only mild headaches of brief duration.
- Recurrent headaches in a child.
- Recurrent severe headaches beginning after age 50.
Alternative remedies can lessen the frequency and severity of headaches. Common treatments include:
- Acupressure. The stomach 3 and large intestine 4 points relieve sinus headaches.
- Acupuncture . A National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel concluded that acupuncture may be a useful treatment for headache.
- Aerobic exercise. Regular aerobic exercise reduces the frequency and intensity of headaches.
- Aromatherapy. Massage using the essential oils of lavender, rosemary , or peppermint relieves headache.
- Autogenic therapy. Headache may be relieved by learning to put oneself in a semi-hypnotic state.
- Chiropractic. Cervical manipulation may relieve tension headaches.
- Heat and/or cold. A hot shower or bath can ease tension headaches. Vascular headache may be relieved by placing an ice pack on the forehead, or the feet in hot water and a cold pack on the forehead (hydrotherapy treatment).
- Herbals. Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium ) can be used for migraine; goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis ) for sinus headache; valerian (Valeriana officinalis ), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora ), or passionflower (Passiflora incarnata ) for tension headache; and cayenne (in nostrils) for cluster headache. A German remedy made from butterbur root (Petasites hybridus ) is now available in the United States under the brand name Petadolex. The herb, Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri ), is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat headaches related to anxiety.
- Holistic medicine. Headaches may be caused by constipation and liver malfunction. Apple-spinach juice relieves constipation, and a blend of carrot, beet, celery, and parsley juices treats the liver.
- Homeopathy. Remedies are chosen for each patient and may include Belladonna (throbbing headache), Bryonia (splitting headache), Kali bichromicum (sinus headache), and Nux vomica (tension headache with nausea and vomiting).
- Massage. Firm massage of the forehead, neck, and scalp may relieve headache.
- Osteopathy. Headache is treated with neuromuscular manipulation and massage of the head, neck, and upper back.
- Pressure. A headband tied tightly around the head may relieve migraines in some patients.
- Reflexology. Headache is treated using the solar plexus, ear, eye, and head points.
- Relaxation techniques. Meditation, biofeedback, and yoga may relieve headache.
- Supplements. Vitamins B2 and B12, niacin , and magnesium (a mineral) may help treat or prevent headache.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This effective headache treatment electrically stimulates nerves and blocks pain transmission.
- Visualization. This relaxation technique controls the images in the mind, replacing negative thoughts and images with positive ones that enhance relaxation.
Tension headaches are usually relieved fairly rapidly by such over-the-counter analgesics as aspirin (300–600 mg every four hours), acetaminophen (650 mg every four hours), or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (brands include Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (brands such as Naprosyn or Aleve). For patients with chronic tension headaches, the doctor may prescribe a tricyclic antidepressant or benzodiazepine tranquilizer in addition to a pain reliever. A newer treatment for chronic tension headaches is botulinum toxin (Botox type A), which appears to work quite well for some patients.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), ibuprofen, and naproxen are helpful for early or mild migraines. More severe attacks may be treated with dihydroergotamine; a group of drugs known as triptans; beta-blockers and calcium channel-blockers; antiseizure drugs; antidepressants (SSRIs); meperidine (Demerol); or metoclopramide (Reglan). Some of these medications are also available as nasal sprays, intramuscular injections, or rectal suppositories for patients with severe vomiting.
Sumatriptan (known as the brand Imitrex) or indomethacin (Indameth or Indocin) may be prescribed to suppress a cluster headache.
Headaches that are caused by brain tumors, head trauma, dental problems, or disorders affecting the spinal discs usually require surgical treatment. In addition, some plastic surgeons have reported success in treating chronic migraine patients by removing some muscle tissue near the eyebrows, cutting a branch of the trigeminal nerve, and repositioning the soft tissue around the temples (sides of the head).
Psychotherapy may be helpful to patients with chronic headaches by interrupting the "feedback loop" between emotional upset and the physical symptoms of headaches.
The prognosis for primary headaches varies. Episodic tension headaches usually resolve completely in less than a day without affecting the patient's overall health. The long-term outlook for patients with migraines depends on whether they have one or more of the other disorders associated with migraine. These disorders include Tourette's syndrome, epilepsy , ischemic stroke , hereditary essential tremor, depression, anxiety, and others. For example, migraine with aura increases a person's risk of ischemic stroke by a factor of six.
The prognosis for secondary headaches depends on the seriousness and severity of the cause.
Lifestyle modification is one measure that people can take to lower their risk of tension headaches. They should get enough sleep and eat nutritious meals at regular times. Skipping meals, using unbalanced fad diets to lose weight, and insufficient or poor-quality sleep can bring on tension headaches.
Some headaches may be prevented by avoiding substances and situations that trigger them, or by employing alternative therapies, such as yoga and regular exercise. Proper lighting may prevent headaches caused by eyestrain. Because food allergies are often linked with headaches, especially cluster strain headaches and migraines, identification and elimination of the allergycausing food(s) from the diet can be an important preventive measure. Women with migraines often benefit by switching from oral contraceptives to another method of birth control, or by discontinuing estrogen replacement therapy. Prophylactic treatments for migraine include prednisone, calcium channel blockers, and methysergide.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Pelletier, Kenneth R. The Best Alternative Medicine, Part II, "CAM Therapies for Specific Conditions: Headache." New York: Simon&Schuster, 2002.
Rapoport, Alan M., and Fred D. Sheftell. Headache Disorders: A Management Guide for Practitioners. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1996.
Somerville, Robert. The Alternate Advisor: The Complete Guide to Natural Therapies and Alternative Treatments. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1997.
Ying, Zhou Zhong, and Jin Hui De. Clinical Manual of Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture. New York: Churchill Livingston, 1997.
Guyuron, B., T. Tucker, and J. Davis. "Surgical Treatment of Migraine Headaches." Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 109 (June 2002): 2183-9.
Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders," 2nd ed. Cephalalgia 24 (2004) (Supplement 1): 1–150.
Sahai, Soma, M.D., Robert Cowan, M.D., and David Y. Ko, M.D. "Pathophysiology and Treatment of Migraine and Related Headache." eMedicine, 30 April 2002. <http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/topic517.htm>.
Singh, Manish K., M.D. "Muscle Contraction Tension Headache." eMedicine, 5 October 2001. <http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/topic231.htm>.
Vernon, H., C. S. McDermaid, and C. Hagino. "Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials of Complementary/Alternative Therapies in the Treatment of Tension-Type and Cervicogenic Headache." Complementary Therapies in Medicine. (1999): 142–55.
American Council for Headache Education (ACHE). 19 Mantua Road, Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. (609) 423-0043 or (800) 255-2243. <http://www.achenet.org/>.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "Headache—Hope Through Research." Bethesda, MD: NINDS, <http://www.ninds.nih.gov/health_and_medical/pubs/headache_htr>.
NINDS. "Migraine Information Page." Bethesda, MD: NINDS, 2003. <http://www.ninds.nih.gov/health_and_medical/pubs/migraineupdate.htm>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
A headache involves pain in the head that can arise from many disorders or may be a disorder in and of itself.
Headaches can be categorized as primary or secondary. Primary headaches occur independently and are not the result of another medical problem. Secondary headaches are caused by illness, infection, or injury and account for less than 10 percent of all headaches.
There are many classifications of headaches, including more than 150 diagnostic headache categories identified by the International Headache Society. In general, there are three types of primary headaches, including:
- Tension headaches—muscular contraction headaches that occur periodically or daily (chronic daily headache). The typical tension-type headache is described as a tightening around the head and neck, and an accompanying dull ache. The headache may last from 30 minutes to several days. Tension headaches usually are not associated with symptoms of nausea or vomiting .
- Migraine—moderate to severe throbbing pain occurring on one or both sides of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light, sound, strong odors, and movement. A migraine with aura has accompanying "warning signs" that indicate a pending attack. A hemiplegic migraine is associated with weakness on one side of the face, arm, or leg. A migraine may last from two to 48 hours and usually occurs two to four times per month.
- Cluster headaches—severe headaches characterized by pain centering around one eye, and eye tearing and nasal congestion occurring on the same side. The headache lasts from 15 minutes to four hours and may recur several times in a day. Cluster headaches have a characteristic grouping of attacks, which may last from two weeks to three months.
Some chronic tension headaches may start as migraines but become daily headaches. These are called transformed migraines. Drug rebound headaches are those that occur from over-using medications for headache pain; they result from exceeding labeling instructions or a physician's directions.
Headaches that occur along with other neurological symptoms, such as balance problems and vision changes, may be a sign of a disease process in the brain. These organic causes of headache may include hydrocephalus (abnormal build-up of fluid in the brain), infection of the brain, tumor, or other conditions.
Headaches are very common in children and adolescents. One study reported that 56 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls between ages 12 and 17 have at least one headache within a 30-day period. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, affecting 15–20 percent of adolescents. The American Council for Headache Education (ACHE) estimates 4–10 percent of children have migraine headaches. Many adults with headaches report that they first began in childhood, and 20 percent report headache onset before age 10. Before puberty , migraines occur equally in girls and boys. After puberty, girls are three times more likely to have migraines than boys because of associated hormonal changes and menstruation . Headaches are a major cause of missed school days.
Causes and symptoms
Most headaches in children and adolescents are benign and not the result of an underlying disease or disorder. Rather, most headaches in children are the result of stress and muscle tension, lack of sleep , orthe common cold , flu, or sinus or ear infection.
Traditional theories about headaches link tension-type headaches to muscle contraction, and migraine and cluster headaches to blood vessel dilation (swelling). Pain-sensitive structures in the head include blood vessel walls, membranous coverings of the brain, and scalp and neck muscles. Brain tissue itself has no sensitivity to pain. Therefore, headaches may result from contraction of the muscles of the scalp, face or neck; dilation of the blood vessels in the head; or brain swelling that stretches the brain's coverings. Involvement of specific nerves of the face and head may also cause characteristic headaches. Sinus inflammation is a common cause of headache.
Tension-type headaches are often brought on by emotional or mental stress, overexertion, poor posture, loud noise, and other external factors.
In post-puberty girls, a hormonal connection is likely, since headaches occur at specific points in the menstrual cycle.
Secondary headaches are caused by a wide range of conditions, including some rare diseases and other more treatable conditions. Secondary headaches may be the result of infection, meningitis , tumors, or localized head injury .
Some headaches have a genetic link; sensitivities to certain environmental triggers and migraines also have been identified in one or both parents.
HEADACHE TRIGGERS Migraines are often triggered by food and environmental factors. Known food triggers include chocolate; aged cheeses; pizza; monosodium glutamate (MSG); bananas; nuts; peanut butter; ice cream; yogurt; fatty or fried foods; processed meats containing nitrates, such as hot dogs and pepperoni; certain food dyes; artificial sweeteners such as aspartame; and caffeine . Environmental triggers include weather changes; smoking ; strong odors; and bright lights. Other triggers include sudden changes in sleep patterns and changes in hormone levels. By keeping a headache diary, the child and parents can identify and then avoid the specific substances that seem to cause headache symptoms.
When to call the doctor
The parent or caregiver should call the child's pediatrician or neurologist when the child has these symptoms or conditions:
- headache pain that interrupts sleep
- early morning vomiting without an upset stomach
- worsening headache symptoms
- headaches that prevent the child from participating in usual activities
- frequent headaches, occurring three or more times per week
- headache characteristics that are completely different or new
- headache caused by strenuous activity, bending, coughing, or exertion
- headaches that become more severe and/or frequent over time
- family history of neurological disease
- headache pain requiring a pain reliever daily or almost every day
- headache pain requiring more than the recommended dose of over-the-counter pain relievers
The parent or caregiver should seek prompt medical attention when the child has these symptoms or conditions:
- Headache is described as the "Worst headache of my life." This may indicate an aneurysm or other neurological emergency.
- Headache accompanied by weakness, numbness , paralysis, visual loss, speech difficulty, loss of balance, falling, seizures, shortness of breath, mental confusion, or loss of consciousness. These symptoms could indicate a pending stroke .
- Sudden onset of headache, especially if accompanied by a fever and stiff neck. These symptoms could indicate meningitis.
- Visual changes, including blurry vision, "blind spots," or double vision.
- Headaches that persist after a head injury or accident.
- Personality changes or inappropriate or unusual behavior.
- Headaches accompanied by severe nausea or vomiting.
- A fever, rash, or stiff neck that occurs with a headache.
All children who experience headaches on a relatively regular basis should be evaluated. Since headaches arise from many causes, a physical exam assesses general health and a neurological exam evaluates the possibility of neurological disease that is causing the headache. The doctor will look for signs of illness, including fever, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, difficulties with balance, or visual problems.
If the headache is the primary illness, the doctor elicits a thorough history of the headache to help classify the headache, including:
- age of onset
- duration and frequency
- types of headaches experienced
- when the headaches occur
- pain intensity and location
- accompanying symptoms or warning signs of headache onset
- possible triggers or causes of the headaches
- types of headache treatments used and their effectiveness
- presence of any prior symptoms
- impact on school and activities
The child's medical and family history help the physician determine if the child has any conditions or disorders that might contribute to or cause the headache. A family history of migraines or neurological disease might suggest a genetic predisposition to the condition.
The diagnostic evaluation for headache may include blood tests and urinalysis to rule out other medical conditions that may be causing the headaches. Neurological imaging tests such as computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be performed to rule out the presence of neurological diseases or disorders. Other tests may include a sinus x ray and ophthalmology examination. If a condition affecting the brain and spinal cord is suspected, a lumbar puncture or spinal tap may be performed.
A psychological assessment is not part of a routine headache evaluation but may be performed to identify stress triggers.
The specific treatment prescribed will depend upon the type and frequency of the headache, its cause, and the child's age.
A headache diary can be used to record the characteristics of headaches, including possible triggers, such as foods, weather changes, odors, mood, stressful situations, emotions, or menstrual phases. It also can help the doctor identify the appropriate treatment.
Making certain dietary and lifestyle changes can significantly improve the child's headache symptoms. Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. It aids in stress reduction and improves circulation, which may help reduce headache symptoms. Relaxation and stress management techniques may help the child cope with headache symptoms. Getting enough sleep is equally important; most children and adolescents need at least eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Counseling can help the child identify stressful situations or events that cause the headaches. It also can teach the child various coping strategies.
Some children may find enough relief with over-the-counter pain relievers in the right dose. Other children need more aggressive treatment that includes preventive (prophylactic) medication.
Headache medications are classified as abortive, prophylactic, or symptom relief. Abortive medications treat a headache in progress, prophylactic medications prevent a headache, and symptom relief medications relieve associated headache symptoms.
Abortive medications are taken with the onset of the first sign of a migraine. Some prescribed abortive medications include the triptan drugs such as sumatriptan (Imitrex), zolmitriptan (Zomig), naratriptan (Amerge), and ergotamine tartrate and caffeine (Caffergot).
Prophylactic medications are prescribed to treat frequent tension headaches or migraines, or the combination of both headaches. These medications must be taken daily to reduce the frequency and severity of headaches, and they may take a few weeks to be fully effective. Some prophylactic treatments include antidepressants , antihistamines , nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), prednisone, beta-blockers, and calcium channel blockers.
Symptom relief medications are used to relieve symptoms associated with headaches, including headache pain or nausea. These drugs may include over-thecounter pain-relieving medications such as acetaminophen , ibuprofen, naproxen, or anti-nausea medications (called antiemitics). Prescribed symptom relief medications may include sedatives (to induce sleep) and muscle relaxants. If symptom relief medications are needed more than twice a week, the child should see his or her doctor, who can make adjustments to the treatment plan. When taken more than three times per week, symptom relief medications can actually cause a type of headache called a rebound headache. To treat rebound headaches, all pain-relieving medications are usually discontinued for a few weeks (as advised by the physician), then used no more than two to three times per week to relieve symptoms.
Alternative headache treatments include:
- relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and relaxation to music
- acupuncture or acupressure
- homeopathic remedies chosen specifically for the individual and his or her type of headache
- massage to reduce stress and tension and relieve tight muscles in the neck and shoulders
- essential oils such as lavender, ginger, peppermint, and wintergreen that can provide relief by simply smelling them or applying them to the temples or neck
- regular physical exercise
Biofeedback, which teaches patients how to direct mental thoughts to influence physical functions, may be helpful for some patients. For example, patients can use certain relaxation techniques to help them learn how their personal response to muscle tension is related to their headache symptoms. By practicing biofeedback, a patient may be able to stop a migraine attack before it occurs or prevent headache symptoms from becoming worse.
It is important for the child to keep a regular followup appointment schedule so the doctor can monitor the effects of treatment and make any necessary medication adjustments.
Abortive —Referring to treatment that relieves symptoms of a disorder. Abortive headache medications are used to stop the headache process and prevent symptoms of migraines, including pain, nausea, sound and light sensitivity, and other symptoms.
Acupuncture —Based on the same traditional Chinese medical foundation as acupressure, acupuncture uses sterile needles inserted at specific points to treat certain conditions or relieve pain.
Acute —Refers to a disease or symptom that has a sudden onset and lasts a relatively short period of time.
Analgesics —A class of pain-relieving medicines, including aspirin and Tylenol.
Aneurysm —A weakened area in the wall of a blood vessel which causes an outpouching or bulge. Aneurysms may be fatal if these weak areas burst, resulting in uncontrollable bleeding.
Anti-inflammatory —A class of drugs, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids, used to relieve swelling, pain, and other symptoms of inflammation.
Antidepressant drug —A medication prescribed to relieve major depression. Classes of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (fluoxetine/Prozac, sertraline/Zoloft), tricyclics (amitriptyline/Elavil), MAOIs (phenelzine/Nardil), and heterocyclics (bupropion/Wellbutrin, trazodone/Desyrel).
Antiemetic drug —A medication that helps control nausea; also called an antinausea drug.
Antihistamine —A drug used to treat allergic conditions that blocks the effects of histamine, a substance in the body that causes itching, vascular changes, and mucus secretion when released by cells.
Aura —A subjective sensation or motor phenomenon that precedes and indicates the onset of a neurological episode, such as a migraine or an epileptic seizure. This term also is used to refer to the emanation of light from living things (plants and animals) that can be recorded by Kirlian photography.
Biofeedback —A training technique that enables an individual to gain some element of control over involuntary or automatic body functions.
Chiropractic —A method of treatment based on the interactions of the spine and the nervous system.
Chiropractors adjust or manipulate segments of the patient's spinal column in order to relieve pain.
Chronic —Refers to a disease or condition that progresses slowly but persists or recurs over time.
Cyclic vomiting —Uncontrolled vomiting that occurs repeatedly over a certain period of time.
Decongestants —A group of medications, such as pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, and phenylpropanolamine, that shrink blood vessels and consequently mucus membranes.
Episodic —Occurring once in a while, without a regular pattern.
Homeopathy —A holistic system of treatment developed in the eighteenth century. It is based on the idea that substances that produce symptoms of sickness in healthy people will have a curative effect when given in very dilute quantities to sick people who exhibit those same symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are believed to stimulate the body's own healing processes.
Hydrotherapy —The use of water (hot, cold, steam, or ice) to relieve discomfort and promote physical well-being. Also called water therapy.
Inflammation —Pain, redness, swelling, and heat that develop in response to tissue irritation or injury. It usually is caused by the immune system's response to the body's contact with a foreign substance, such as an allergen or pathogen.
Lumbar puncture —A procedure in which the doctor inserts a small needle into the spinal cavity in the lower back to withdraw spinal fluid for testing. Also known as a spinal tap.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) —An imaging technique that uses a large circular magnet and radio waves to generate signals from atoms in the body. These signals are used to construct detailed images of internal body structures and organs, including the brain.
Meningitis —An infection or inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It is usually caused by bacteria or a virus.
Nervous system —The system that transmits information, in the form of electrochemical impulses, throughout the body for the purpose of activation, coordination, and control of bodily functions. It is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
Neurologist —A doctor who specializes in disorders of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
Neurology —The study of nerves.
Nitrate —A food additive, commonly found in processed meats, that may be a headache trigger for some people.
Prophylactic —Preventing the spread or occurrence of disease or infection.
Stroke —Interruption of blood flow to a part of the brain with consequent brain damage. A stroke may be caused by a blood clot or by hemorrhage due to a burst blood vessel. Also known as a cerebrovascular accident.
Trigger —Any situation (people, places, times, events, etc.) that causes one to experience a negative emotional reaction, which is often accompanied by a display of symptoms or problematic behavior.
Most headaches are benign (not the result of a severe disease). Headaches are typically resolved through the use of analgesics and other treatments. As a child grows, the headaches may disappear.
Some headaches may be prevented if the child avoids triggering substances and situations, or practices alternative therapies, such as yoga or biofeedback. Regular exercise and good sleep habits also can help prevent headaches.
Since food allergies are often linked with headaches, especially cluster headaches and migraines, identifying and eliminating the allergy-causing food(s) from the diet can be an important preventive measure. To help control migraines, the child should eat three balanced meals at regular intervals, take a multi-vitamin supplement to maintain adequate nutrient needs, and drink four to eight glasses of non-caffeinated fluids per day. Sports drinks during exercise and during a headache can help balance sugar and sodium levels. To prevent headache symptoms associated with certain foods, parents should work with a registered dietitian to facilitate specific dietary changes. They also should carefully read food labels to identify and avoid dietary triggers.
It is important for parents to reassure their child that most headaches are not caused by a serious illness. Parents can help their child create and maintain a headache diary to record headache symptoms, triggers, as well as the duration and frequency of the headaches. Parents should make sure their child drinks enough fluids, eats three well-balanced meals each day, gets plenty of sleep, and balances activities to avoid an over-crowded schedule that may cause stress and lead to a headache. When headaches occur, parents should allow the child to take a nap; a dark, quiet room is usually preferred by the child. In addition, parents can help the child learn relaxation techniques to help relieve or prevent headache symptoms. If the headaches are linked to anxiety or depression, the parents should ask the child's doctor for a referral to a counselor who can provide additional assistance.
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American Council for Headache Education (ACHE). 19 Mantua Road, Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. (856) 423-0258. Web site: <www.achenet.org>.
American Headache Society. 19 Mantua Rd., Mt Royal, NJ 08061.(856) 423-0043. Web site: <www.ahsnet.org>.
MAGNUM (Migraine Awareness Group: A National Understanding for Migraineurs). 113 South St. Asaph St., Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22314. (703) 739-9384. Web site: <www.migraines.org>.
National Headache Foundation. 820 N. Orleans, Suite 217, Chicago, IL 60610. (888) NHF-5552. Web site: <www.headaches.org>.
National Institutes of Health (NIH). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NIH Neurological Institute. P.O. Box 5801, Bethesda, MD 20824. (800) 352-9424. Web site: <www.ninds.nih.gov>.
Excedrin Headache Resource Center. Sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Available online at: <www.Excedrin.com>.
Headache Impact Test. A tool to measure the impact headaches are having on patients' lives, to track headaches over time, and to share this information with the physician. Available online at: <www.headachetest.com>.
Migraine Information Center. Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline. Available online at: <www.migrainehelp.com>.
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Julia Barrett Angela M. Costello
A headache involves pain in the head which can arise from many disorders or may be a disorder in and of itself.
There are three types of primary headaches: tension-type (muscular contraction headache), migraine (vascular headaches), and cluster. Virtually everyone experiences a tension-type headache at some point. An estimated 18% of American women suffer migraines, compared to 6% of men. Cluster headaches affect fewer than 0.5% of the population, and men account for approximately 80% of all cases. Headaches caused by illness are secondary headaches and are not included in these numbers.
Approximately 40-45 million people in the United States suffer chronic headaches. Headaches have an enormous impact on society due to missed workdays and productivity losses.
Causes and symptoms
Traditional theories about headaches link tension-type headaches to muscle contraction, and migraine and cluster headaches to blood vessel dilation (swelling). Pain-sensitive structures in the head include blood vessel walls, membranous coverings of the brain, and scalp and neck muscles. Brain tissue itself has no sensitivity to pain. Therefore, headaches may result from contraction of the muscles of the scalp, face or neck; dilation of the blood vessels in the head; or brain swelling that stretches the brain's coverings. Involvement of specific nerves of the face and head may also cause characteristic headaches. Sinus inflammation is a common cause of headache. Keeping a headache diary may help link headaches to stressful occurrences, menstrual phases, food triggers, or medication.
Tension-type headaches are often brought on by stress, overexertion, loud noise, and other external factors. The typical tension-type headache is described as a tightening around the head and neck, and an accompanying dull ache.
Migraines are intense throbbing headaches occurring on one or both sides of the head, usually on one side. The pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and aversion to light, sound, and movement. Migraines often are triggered by food items, such as red wine, chocolate, and aged cheeses. For women, a hormonal connection is likely, since headaches occur at specific points in the menstrual cycle, with use of oral contraceptives, or the use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause. Research shows that a complex interaction of nerves and neurotransmitters in the brain act to cause migraine headaches.
Cluster headaches cause excruciating pain. The severe, stabbing pain centers around one eye, and eye tearing and nasal congestion occur on the same side. The headache lasts from 15 minutes to four hours and may recur several times in a day. Heavy smokers are more likely to suffer cluster headaches, which also are associated with alcohol consumption.
Since headaches arise from many causes, a physical exam assesses general health and a neurologic exam evaluates the possibility of neurologic disease as a cause for the headache. If the headache is the primary illness, the doctor asks for a thorough history of the headache. Questions revolve around its frequency and duration, when it occurs, pain intensity and location, possible triggers, and any prior symptoms. This information aids in classifying the headache.
Warning signs that should point out the need for prompt medical intervention include:
- "Worst headache of my life." This may indicate subarachnoid hemorrhage from a ruptured aneurysm (swollen blood vessel) in the head or other neurological emergency.
- Headache accompanied by one-sided weakness, numbness, visual loss, speech difficulty, or other signs. This may indicate a stroke. Migraines may include neurological symptoms.
- Headache that becomes worse over a period of 6 months, especially if most prominent in the morning or if accompanied by neurological symptoms. This may indicate a brain tumor.
- Sudden onset of headache. If accompanied by fever and stiff neck, this can indicate meningitis.
Headache treatment is divided into two forms: abortive and prophylactic. Abortive treatment addresses a headache in progress, and prophylactic treatment prevents headache occurrence.
Tension-type headaches can be treated with aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. In early 1998, the FDA approved extra-strength Excedrin, which includes caffeine, for mild migraines. Physicians continue to investigate and monitor the best treatment for migraines and generally prefer a stepped approach, depending on headache severity, frequency and impact on the patient's quality of life. A group of drugs called triptans are usually preferred for abortive treatment. About seven triptans are available in the United States and the pill forms are considered most effective. They should be taken as early as possible during the typical migraine attack. The most common prophylactic therapies include antidepressants, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and antiseizure medications. Antiseizure medications have proven particularly effective at blocking the actions of neurotransmitters that start migraine attacks. Topiramate (Topamax) was shown effective in several combined clinical trials in 2004 at 50 to 200 mg per day.
In 2004, a new, large study added evidence to show the effectiveness of botulinum toxin type A (Botox) treatment to prevent headache pain for those with frequent, untreatable tension and migraine headaches. Patients were treated every three months, with two to five injections each time. They typically received relief within two to three weeks.
Cluster headaches may also be treated with ergotamine and sumatriptan, as well as by inhaling pure oxygen. Prophylactic treatments include prednisone, calcium channel blockers, and methysergide.
Alternative headache treatments include:
- acupuncture or acupressure
- herbal remedies using feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium ), valerian (Valeriana officinalis ), white willow (Salix alba ), or skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora ), among others
- homeopathic remedies chosen specifically for the individual and his/her type of headache
- magnesium supplements
- regular physical exercise
- relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) (A procedure that electrically stimulates nerves and blocks the signals of pain transmission.)
Headaches are typically resolved through the use of analgesics and other treatments. Research in 2004 showed that people who have migraine headaches more often than once a month may be at increased risk for stroke.
Some headaches may be prevented by avoiding triggering substances and situations, or by employing alternative therapies, such as yoga and regular exercise. Since food allergies often are linked with headaches, especially cluster headaches, identification and elimination of the allergy-causing food(s) from the diet can be an important preventive measure.
Abortive— Referring to treatment that relieves symptoms of a disorder.
Analgesics— A class of pain-relieving medicines, including aspirin and Tylenol.
Biofeedback— A technique in which a person is taught to consciously control the body's response to a stimulus.
Chronic— Referring to a condition that occurs frequently or continuously or on a regular basis.
Prophylactic— Referring to treatment that prevents symptoms of a disorder from appearing.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation— A method that electrically stimulates nerve and blocks the transmission of pain signals, called TENS.
Kruit, Mark C., et al. "Migraine as a Risk Factor for Subclinical Brain Lesions." JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association January 28, 2004: 427-435.
Norton, Patrice G. W. "Botox Stops Headache Pain in Recalcitrant Cases." Clinical Psychiatry News March 2004: 72.
Taylor, Frederick, et al. "Diagnosis and Management of Migraine in Family Practice." Journal of Family Practice January 2004: S3-S25.
American Council for Headache Education (ACHE). 19 Mantua Road, Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. (800) 255-2243. 〈http://www.achenet.org〉.
Headache is a pain or discomfort of the head. It is not a disease but a symptom of some other problem in the body, and there are many possible causes. When someone gets a headache it usually is temporary, and only very rarely is it a sign of serious illness.
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Headaches are so common that it is hard to imagine someone who has not had a headache, unless perhaps it is a newborn baby. Although there are dozens of causes of headaches, most headaches are due to tension or stress. About 20 percent of people in the United States at some point in their lives may have a recurrent, often severe type of headache known as migraine.
Up to 50 million people in America seek medical help for migraine and other severe headaches each year. It has been estimated that more than 180 million workdays are lost due to headache annually, and that more than a billion dollars are spent for over-the-counter remedies to relieve headaches.
Chronic headaches may accompany emotional disturbances such as depression. Many times, headaches are just one of a number of symptoms, such as fever or dizziness, that are brought on by various diseases or injuries. Migraine headaches frequently are accompanied by nausea and other symptoms that are characteristic of it.
The pain of headache may be mild, extremely severe, or anywhere in between. It may involve the entire head, one side only, the forehead, the base of the skull, or it may seem to move around. The pain may be sharp, a dull ache, or throbbing. A headache may last a few minutes or hours. It may recur from time to time, or may become chronic, coming back many times over an extended period.
How Did Migraine Get Its Name?
Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a medical writer in Greece in the second century A.D., is believed to have been the first to recognize migraine as a one-sided headache with stomach and visual disturbances. Galen, a contemporary of Aretaeus, gave this affliction the name hemikrania meaning “half of the head,” referring to the way it typically affects people. In Old English, the term became megrim, and finally evolved to “migraine.”
An Ancient, and Drastic, Treatment
Prehistoric peoples are known to have surgically cut holes in the skulls of living persons, presumably to relieve some ailment. The purpose of this operation is not known with certainty. Perhaps it was carried out to relieve the pressure of a blood clot under the skull caused by a blow to the head. However, it is believed that in some instances it may have been done in an attempt to cure headaches by releasing evil spirits. Stone Age patients who underwent this surgery apparently often survived, because many of the skulls found by scientists showed new growth of bone around the holes.
Many people believe that the brain itself is involved in headaches, but neither the brain nor the skull has nerves that register pain. The sources of head pain are the nerve endings in the blood vessels and muscles in and around the head. Pain may be felt when these tissues become stretched, inflamed, or damaged. Headaches can arise in blood vessels within the brain, as well as in the meninges (me-NIN-jeez), which are the sensitive membranes that cover the brain.
Mild headaches may arise from such things as a change in the weather or hunger. Common causes of mild to severe headache pain include disorders of the eyes, ears, and sinuses. For example, eyestrain and diseases such as glaucoma can produce pain in the front of the head and around the eye. Mastoiditis, an inflammation of bone behind the ear, can cause severe pain on the affected side of the head. Sinusitis can cause sharp headaches in the front of the head (often called sinus headaches). A jaw or bite that does not close properly also can cause headache.
Many types of infection with fever, such as influenza (flu), cause headache. Other causes include drinking too much alcohol, heavy smoking, withdrawal from caffeine, or inhaling a noxious gas, such as carbon monoxide. Contrary to popular belief, high blood pressure rarely is a direct cause of headache.
Headache is one of the symptoms of concussion, and sometimes becomes chronic following this injury.
Rarely, headaches may be caused by brain abscesses, brain tumors, bleeding into the brain, and meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain).
Physicians often classify headaches as those caused by disease or injury (described above); tension headaches; and vascular* headache . Vascular headaches include migraine and a type called cluster headaches. Tension and migraine headaches are very common.
- * vascular
- refers to veins and arteries (the blood vessels).
Headaches that are associated with emotional stress or muscular tension are called tension headaches. The muscular tension may be in the neck, face, or scalp. It may be the result of poor posture or of constantly bending over one’s work. These headaches are extremely common, and almost everyone has them at one time or another. A person may have one after working on the computer too long or bending over while doing homework.
Pressures from school, friends, or family may play a role. Adults may develop tension headaches because of stress at work. Tension headaches may be mild to moderate and occur in various parts of the head. The feeling has been described as a steady ache or as a tight sensation.
The pain of tension headaches can be chronic or recurrent, sometimes coming on every day. Muscles near the site of the pain, such as at the back of the neck, or on the sides of the head, are often tense and tender. Sometimes chronic tension headache is a symptom of depression.
Migraine is a moderate to severe headache that can interfere with a person’s life. The pain is typically, although not always, in one side of the head, at least at the beginning, and may last from hours to days. Migraine headaches occur every so often, usually beginning in adolescence or early adult life. They tend to become less frequent with age, and tend to be rare or absent after the age of 40 to 50.
Migraine is one of the most common types of headaches, affecting about 20 million people in the United States alone. Women are four times more likely to experience migraine than men. People in all walks of life have been afflicted, including Sigmund Freud, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. Contemporary sufferers have included the late Princess Diana of Great Britain and the basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The cause or causes of migraine headaches are not known with certainty. They are classified as vascular headaches because blood vessels in the head dilate, or expand, during an attack. It is believed that certain chemical substances in the nerve cells surrounding the vessels are involved in the attack. The precise mechanism is not fully understood, however.
Migraine headaches tend to run in families. However, one does not catch this headache from someone else.
Most migraine attacks begin without warning. Typically, the pain is throbbing, often growing in intensity. It usually is accompanied by nausea and sometimes vomiting. The slightest noise or movement can make it worse. Ordinary light coming through a window may seem unbearable.
In about 15 percent of people who get migraines, the headaches are preceded by a distinctive type of warning called an aura (OR-uh). An aura can be a blank spot in the vision bordered by zigzag and flashing lights or numbness or weakness in parts of the body. After several minutes, the aura goes away and the pain of the headache begins. Migraine preceded by an aura has been called a classic migraine, or migraine with aura.
In a number of individuals, certain factors, or triggers, can bring on a migraine attack. Common examples include red wine and foods such as cheese, nuts, chocolate, and citrus fruit. Nitrites, which are used as meat preservatives in products such as bacon or cold cuts, are another recognized trigger. Other triggers include excessive sleep, relaxation after exercise, fatigue, and stress. Still others are related to hormonal changes, such as those that occur at the onset of menstruation. Sometimes the trigger is not known.
Intensely painful headaches that occur one or more times daily are called cluster headaches. These headaches may keep recurring for weeks or months, then not return for years. The pain is centered on one side of the head around the eye. Besides pain, the symptoms include a watery eye and a runny nose on the affected side.
Cluster headaches occur in men more often than in women, and usually first appear about age 40. Their cause is unknown.
Most headaches, although unpleasant, are not signs of serious health problems. A person should see a doctor if the headaches are unusually persistent or severe, if there are any changes in vision or speech, or if there is weakness or numbness in any body part.
Over-the-counter pain-relieving drugs, such as acetaminophen, may ease mild headaches. Relief also may come from such simple measures as getting some fresh air, taking a hot bath, getting a muscle massage, or just lying down for a while. Tension headaches can be dealt with by addressing the cause of the emotional or physical stress.
For severe headaches, such as migraine, the best approach is prevention, that is, avoiding the factors that the individual knows are most likely to trigger an attack. Once an attack begins, pain-relieving drugs may help to ease symptoms. The doctor also can prescribe medicines that will narrow the blood vessels in the brain that have dilated during an attack. If migraine attacks occur frequently, the doctor can prescribe medications to prevent the migraine. Biofeedback, a relaxation technique, has proven helpful in relieving and avoiding some headaches.
Cluster headache attacks may be over before pain-relieving drugs can take effect. However, some prescription medicines may be useful in prevention.
Many common headaches can, of course, be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including regular eating and sleeping habits, and avoidance of excess alcohol and caffeine intake.
A headache is a pain in the head. A headache can be caused by some other physical disorder, or it may be a disorder in and of itself.
There are three major types of headaches: tension (or stress), migraine, and cluster. A tension headache is caused by the tightening of muscles in the neck and head. A migraine headache occurs when blood vessels in the brain dilate (swell up). Cluster headaches are characterized by very severe pain.
Tension headaches are probably the most common form of the disorder. Nearly everyone has a tension headache from time to time. Migraine headaches are less common. About 18 percent of American women and 6 percent of American men experience migraine headaches on a relatively regular basis. Cluster headaches are fairly rare. Less than 0.5 percent of Americans experience cluster headaches. Men make up 80 percent of all cluster headache sufferers.
Approximately forty to forty-five million people in the United States suffer headaches on a regular basis over an extended period of time. Headaches have a major impact on society because of missed workdays.
Headaches can also be caused by other kinds of diseases, injuries, and disorders. Headaches of this kind are not discussed in this entry.
Brain tissue itself does not feel pain, but other kinds of tissue in and around the brain can feel pain. For example, muscles in the scalp, face, or neck can contract and become painful, and blood vessels in the brain and face can swell, causing pain in the muscles and tissue on the skull.
Headache: Words to Know
- Describes an action that cuts something short or stops it.
- A technique in which a person learns to consciously control the body's response to a stimulus.
- Referring to a treatment that prevents the symptoms of a disorder from developing.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation:
- A procedure in which mild electrical currents are used to stimulate nerves in order to prevent the transmission of pain messages in the body.
Tension headaches are thought to be caused when muscles in and around the head contract (tighten up) due often to stress or poor posture. Tension headaches are also triggered by eye-strain, overexertion, loud noises, and other disturbing factors in the environment.
Migraine headaches are thought to occur when blood vessels in the brain dilate. In either case, pressure is exerted on certain tissues that can feel pain. Migraines are often triggered by food items, such as red wine, chocolate, and aged cheeses. For women, hormone changes may also be a cause of migraines. Women may experience migraines at certain times in menstrual cycle, when they are taking oral contraceptives, or after menopause.
Cluster headaches seem to be associated with alcohol and tobacco use. They can also be triggered by tension and by histamines (a compound the body releases as part of an allergic reaction; see allergies entry).
Migraine headaches are intense throbbing headaches that occur on one or both sides of the head. The pain is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and a high sensitivity to light, sound, and movement.
The usual tension headache is described as a tightening around the head and neck, accompanied by a steady ache that forms a tight band around the forehead. Tension headaches usually affect both sides of the head and usually appear at the front of the head, although they can appear at the top or back of the skull. Tension headaches often begin in the afternoon and can last for several hours. They can occur every day. When this happens it is called a chronic tension headache.
A cluster headache can cause excruciating pain. The headache is usually centered around one eye. It may also cause the eyes to tear and nasal (nose) congestion. A cluster headache usually lasts from fifteen minutes to four hours. It may occur several times in a day.
Cluster headaches are classified as either episodic or chronic. Approximately 80 percent of cluster headaches are episodic, that is, they occur during one to five month periods followed by six to twenty-four month attack-free period. There is no such reprieve for chronic cluster headache sufferers.
The first step in diagnosing a headache is to find out whether it is related to some other medical problem. For example, people who have experienced a head injury (see head injury entry) may also have headaches. A doctor needs to find out whether the headache is a result of such a condition or is the problem itself.
If the headache is the sole problem, a doctor conducts a physical examination and takes a medical history. He or she may ask how often the headache occurs, where it is located, what factors seem to cause the headache, and what other symptoms may accompany it. The answers to these questions help the doctor classify the headache into one of the three categories listed above.
Nearly everyone has headaches from time to time. Some conditions, however, are warning signs that medical care is necessary. These signs include:
- "Worst headache of my life." This complaint could mean that damage has occurred to a blood vessel in the brain. Immediate medical attention may be required.
- Headache accompanied by a weakness on one side of the body, numbness, loss of vision, or problems with speaking. These symptoms are possible indications of a stroke.
- Headaches that become worse over a period of six months, especially if they occur in the morning. This pattern may suggest the presence of a brain tumor.
- Sudden onset (beginning) of a headache. The presence of a fever along with the headache may indicate a serious brain disorder known as meningitis ("brain fever," pronounced meh-nen-JI-tiss).
Aspirin is one of the oldest drugs known to humans. Ancient people discovered long ago that pain and fever could be controlled by chewing on the bark of the willow tree or by rubbing oil of wintergreen on a sore part of the body. Willow trees and wintergreen both contain a chemical known as salicylic (pronounced SAL-ih-SILL-ik) acid.
Of course, the ancients did not know the chemical composition of willows and wintergreen. It was not until the mid-1800s that chemists gained that knowledge. Then, they became excited about the possible uses of salicylic acid. They thought it might be able to cure many different kinds of diseases. They also believed that it could be used to preserve foods.
They were right about the second point, but wrong about the first. For a time, salicylic acid became popular as a food preservative. But it was soon replaced by other, more effective methods.
Although salicylic acid did not cure disease, it was effective in reducing fever and relieving pain. But it had one serious side effect: It usually upset the stomach. Eventually, researchers found a solution to this problem. They converted salicylic acid into another form, called sodium acetylsalicylate (pronounced uh-SEAT-el-suh-LIS-ih-late). Sodium acetylsalicylate also acts to reduce fever and relieve pain. But it is less harmful to the stomach.
In 1899, the German chemical company, Bayer AG, began making sodium acetylsalicylate commercially. They named the product aspirin. Today, aspirin is probably the most widely used drug in the world.
To diagnose conditions such as these, a doctor may use a variety of tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A CT scan is a procedure by which X rays are directed at a patient's body from various angles and the set of photographs thus obtained assembled by a computer program. This procedure is sometimes called a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan. An MRI is a technique for studying the structure of internal organs by using magnetic waves.
There are two kinds of headache treatment, called abortive and prophylactic. Abortive treatment is used with headaches that are already in progress. Prophylactic treatments are used to prevent headaches from occurring.
The most common drugs used to treat tension and migraine headaches are aspirin, acetaminophen (pronounced uh-SEAT-uh-min-uh-fin), ibuprofen (pronounced EYE-byu-pro-fin), or naproxen. Antidepressants and muscle relaxants can also be used to treat tension headaches. Three drugs that have had some success in the treatment of migraines include ergotamine tartrate, sumatriptan, and extra-strength Excedrin (which includes caffeine). Cluster headaches are also treated with ergotamine tartrate (pronounced ur-GOT-uhmeen TAR-trait) and sumatriptan (pronounced SOO-muh-TRIP-tan), as well as with pure oxygen. Prophylactic treatments include prednisone (pronounced PRED-nih-zone), calcium channel blockers, and methysergide (pronounced METH-ih-SIR-jide).
A number of alternative treatments have been recommended for treating and preventing headaches. These include:
- Acupuncture or acupressure
- Herbal remedies, such as chamomile, feverfew, valerian, white willow, and skullcap
- Homeopathic remedies
- Magnesium supplements
- Regular physical exercise
- Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a technique that uses mild electrical shocks in an effort to prevent pain signals in the body
As painful as headaches can be, they are not fatal (as long as they are not a symptom of some more serious disease or disorder). Neither do they have harmful long-term effects. Most headaches disappear on their own or are relieved by the treatments mentioned above.
People can avoid some headaches by avoiding the factors that cause them. For example, one is less likely to develop tension headaches if one avoids stress in everyday life. Headaches caused by food allergies can be prevented by not eating the foods that bring on the headaches. Regular exercise and certain alternative treatments, such as relaxation exercises, may also help prevent some headaches.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Burks, Susan L., and Fred D. Sheftell. Managing Your Migraine: A Migraine Sufferer's Practical Guide. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1994.
Inlander, Charles B. Headaches: 47 Ways to Stop the Pain. New York: Walker & Company, 1995.
Robbins, Lawrence D. Headache Help: A Complete Guide to Understanding Headaches and the Medicines That Relieve Them. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
Votava, Andrea. Coping With Migraines and Other Headaches. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1997.
American Council for Headache Education. 19 Mantua Road, Mt. Royal, NJ 08061. (609) 423–0043; (800) 255–2243. http://www.achenet.org.
"Ask NOAH About: Headache." NOAH: New York Online Access to Health. [Online] http://www.noah.cuny.edu/headache.headache.html (accessed on October 21, 1999).
There are many different types of headache, whether considered as to how they behave or as to how they are caused. Headache may broadly be classified as primary or secondary: there are situations in which headache itself is the problem (primary headache), and others in which headache is a symptom of some other condition (secondary headache). Headache has been classified in detail by the International Headache Society, and whole textbooks have been written about it.
The main types of primary and secondary headache are listed in the table, which is based on a population survey. The main primary headaches are migraine (which is considered separately under that heading) and ‘tension-type headache — which is the commonest of all. It is often dull, both-sided, mild but otherwise featureless. It is surprisingly poorly understood. One of the most severe forms of headache, and one of the most difficult to treat, is ‘chronic daily headache’, which involves having headache most days of the week for most of the day. This may be either a form of chronic migraine or of tension-type headache; it is probably experienced in some form by up to 4% of the population, and is often associated with analgesic (painkiller) overuse. The daily headache syndrome is often due in part to the constant cycle of taking painkillers and then having their effects wear off: so-called rebound headache. Regular use of painkillers, particularly those containing more than one ingredient, such as mixtures with codeine, caffeine, or barbiturates, is a potent cause of difficulty in the treatment of headache. Also any regular intake of anti-migraine drugs, including ergotamine and triptans (sumatriptan and related compounds), may potentially cause or aggravate this problem.
Headache does not have any single cause. Just as there are many types of headache, there are many causes of the problem. With respect to the cause of the pain the mechanisms are much less well understood for the primary than for the secondary headaches. Whereas the pain due to injury to the skin, for example, is well understood as being due to stimulation of specific nerve endings in conjunction with local inflammatory events, it is not clear in primary head pain whether the nerves are firing normally or abnormally in response to various stimuli. Much work is to be to done, especially in regard to understanding tension-type headache.
Headache due to serious disease is rare, but a sufferer should be concerned about a headache when it has certain features. These include: sudden onset or sudden worsening, such as a severe headache never previously experienced; headache associated with fever, together with neck stiffness or altered consciousness, such as drowsiness; headache that is gradually worsening over a short period — say one to two months; or headache associated with pain in the temples, and pain on chewing, particularly if there is any visual disturbance. These latter symptoms are very important and a sufferer should seek immediate medical attention.
Most countries have established flourishing patient groups, which can be contacted by reference to telephone directories, such as the Migraine Trust in the UK and the American Council for Headache Education in the US.
Prevalence (% of all
Prevalence (% of all
Types of headache. After Rassmussen, B. K. (1995) Epidemology of headache. Cephalalgia;15:45–68.
Peter J. Goadsby
See also migraine.
Goadsby, P. J. and Silberstein, S. D. (ed.) (1997). Headache. Butterworth–Heinemann, New York. ( Asbury, A. and Marsden. C. D. (ed.) Blue books in practical neurology, Vol. 17.)
Lance, J. W. and and Goadsby, P. J. (1998). Mechanism and management of headache, (6th edn). Butterworth–Heinemann, London.
head·ache / ˈhedˌāk/ • n. a continuous pain in the head. ∎ inf. a thing or person that causes worry or trouble; a problem: an administrative headache. DERIVATIVES: head·ach·y / -ˌākē/ adj.