Common and usually treatable with simple painkillers
Everyone gets a headache at some point in their life, and 10 million people in the UK get them regularly. Most are not serious and can be treated with simple pain killers, rest and drinking plenty of fluids. It’s worth seeing a doctor if these don’t work or your headache is so bad or occurs so often that it interferes with your usual routine.
The most common types of headaches are tension headaches, migraines and those caused by hangovers. Women can be affected by hormonal changes, whether related to their periods, the menopause of using the pill. And rebound headaches are a common cause of headaches amongst people who have been taking painkillers for long periods of time.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They feel like a band being tightened around the temples and forehead and usually last for no more than a few hours, although can continue for a few days and can recur regularly. They tend to get worse as the day goes on and, despite the name, aren’t caused by stress or ‘tension’ although they may be made worse by stiff neck muscles. Although can affect concentration, they are rarely so severe that they interfere with usual activities or sleep.
The cause of tension headaches is unclear although they have been linked to alcohol, caffeine, dehydration, skipping meals, lack of sleep and poor posture. They may occur regularly such as weekly or monthly. A tension headache may.
Tension headaches may improve with lifestyle changes such as doing more exercise. Sometimes a neck and shoulder massage or a warm compress on the shoulder can help. Simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help but if you find that the headaches are recurring more than twice a week or continuing for long periods, you should contact a Doctor.
Migraines are less common than tension headaches. They usually feel like a severe, throbbing pain at the front or one side of the head and are often associated with nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraines are usually more severe than tension headaches and people often need to take to their bed until the symptoms pass. They sometimes start with the sensation of bright lights or an ‘aura’ and occasionally weakness and numbness in the arm, face or leg. Some people can identify specific triggers that cause migraine such as certain types of food, drink, medicine or stress. Migraine is not inherited but it does run in families.
What causes migraines is poorly understood – there’s some evidence that its linked to blood vessels in the brain narrowing and widening. Treatment starts with simple pain killers and anti-sickness medications but may also involve tablets called triptans. These work by mimicking the action of Serotonin, a chemical in the brain that constricts dilated blood vessels and reducing symptoms. Triptans can be bought over the counter but it’s worth discussing whether they are appropriate for you with your doctor or pharmacist.
Ironically, despite most headaches responding well to painkillers, if you use them for too long, they can make things worse. Technically, you have a rebound (or medication overuse) headaches if it’s been present for at least 15 days of the month despite regular pain relief and it reverts to its previous pattern within two months of stopping painkillers.
In order to break this cycle, it helps to understand the cause and to work closely with your doctor to devise a plan to reduce the use of painkillers. It’s tough – the headache tends tog et worse before it gets better.
Other causes of headache
Lots of illnesses and injuries can cause headaches including:
- Colds, flu and sinusitis
- Head injuries and concussion
- Temperomandibular joint problems (the joint between the jawbone and the skull) and problems relating to a mal-aligned bite
- Sleep apnoea – a condition where the palate and walls of the throat relax during sleep and interrupt normal breathing
More serious causes of headaches are rare but can be a symptom of a stroke, meningitis or a brain tumour.
Contact Bluezone if you have a headache and any of the following:
- it feels different from your normal headache
- it’s not relieved by simple painkillers, recurs frequently or is getting worse over time
- you also have a fever, stiff neck, rash, changes in vision, a sore scalp, or severe pain and redness in one of your eyes
- it occurs suddenly and is very severe – like being kicked in the head and unlike anything experienced before
- it occurs after a severe head injury
- it’s triggered suddenly by coughing, laughing, sneezing, changes in posture, or exercise
- it’s associated with weakness, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss, or drowsiness