What causes your headache?
The actual headache process is not yet understood. Only rarely are headaches a sign of a serious medical problem such as a tumor. Headache pain may be caused by abnormal interaction between the brain and the nerves and blood vessels in the head. A previous head injury or concussion, neck pain, environmental stresses, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, fatigue, skipping meals, or certain foods and drinks may trigger headache pain.
Brain scans are rarely needed and only for certain danger sign symptoms. CT scans are associated with potential radiation effects and potential inaccurate false findings.
What is referred pain?
Headache pain can be referred pain, which is pain that has its source in one place but is felt in another. For example, pain behind the eyes may actually be caused by tense muscles in the neck and shoulders. This means that the place that hurts may not be the part of the body that needs treatment.
Is it a migraine?
Migraine is a vascular headache that causes throbbing pain felt on one (most common) or both sides (less common) of the head. You may feel nauseated or vomit. This headache may also be preceded or associated with changes in sight (like seeing spots or flashes of light), ability to speak, or sensation (aura). There are a wide variety of environmental and food-related triggers for migraines. The pain may last for 4 to 72 hours. Afterward, you may feel shaky for a day or so. If this is the first time you experience these symptoms, you should immediately seek medical attention because you could be having a stroke.
Is it a tension headache?
This type of headache is usually a dull ache or a sensation of pressure on both sides of the head. It may be associated with pain or tension in the neck and shoulders. Depression, anxiety, and stress can cause a tension headache. The pain may not have a definite beginning or end. It may come and go, or seem never to go away.
When to call the health care provider
Call your health care provider for headaches that happen along with any of these symptoms:
- Sudden, severe headache that is different from your usual headache pain
- Headache associated with fever
- Sudden headache associated with stiff neck
- Slurred speech
- Recurring headache in children
- Ongoing numbness or muscle weakness
- Loss of vision
- Pain following a head injury
- Convulsions, or a change in mental awareness
- A headache you would call "the worst headache you've ever had"
- New headaches in a pregnant woman
Preventing Migraine Headaches: Medicines and Lifestyle Changes
A migraine is a type of severe headache. But there are steps you can take to help prevent migraines.
- Your health care provider may prescribe certain medicines to help prevent migraines. These medicines may need to be taken daily or when you’re likely to have a migraine.
- Common medicines to help prevent migraines include:
- Triptans (serotonin receptor agonists)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen, available over the counter)
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Calcium channel blockers
- Certain vitamins, minerals and plant extracts
- Botulinum toxin injection for certain chronic migraines
- CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) agnonists are being reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Lifestyle changes for long-term prevention
Here are some suggestions:
- Exercise. Regular exercise can help prevent migraines and improve your health. (If exercise triggers your migraines, talk to your health care provider.)
- Keep regular habits. Don’t skip or delay meals. Drink plenty of water. And go to bed and get up at about the same time each day. This includes weekends.
- Try alternative treatments that don't involve the use of medicines or surgery. They may help relieve symptoms and prevent migraines. Some options include biofeedback and acupuncture. Ask your health care provider to tell you more about these treatments if you have questions.
- Limit caffeine. You may find that caffeine helps relieve pain during an attack. But too much caffeine can also trigger migraines. So limit the amount of caffeine you consume.
Talk to your doctor about treatment options that are right for you. Call 501-686-5838 for the UAMS Neurology Clinic to speak with one of our qualified professionals.