Whether it’s that pulsating pain of a migraine, or the vice-like grip of sinus congestion, nobody likes a headache. Here are the causes and treatments for the most common headaches.
Title image remixed from ollyy (Shutterstock)
According to the US National Headache Foundation, at least 150 different headache variations exist, and the range of causes is equally diverse, from genetic factors to inadequate food intake. That said, a few common types account for the majority of headaches. Here’s how to deal with them. (If headaches are a recurring problem, you should definitely see your doctor and seek out professional treatment.)
Tension headaches are the most common headache type. They’re characterised by mild to moderate pain, tightness, and pressure in the forehead or back of the neck. Typically, the pain is “throbbing” and although annoying, doesn’t usually ruin your day.
Causes: The potential causes are quite varied. Possible trigger include anxiety, eye strain, caffeine, food, lack of rest, bad posture, stress and hunger. Tension headaches are also common after a night of alcohol. If something is abnormal in your daily routine, whether it’s a late lunch or a series of deadlines at work, a tension headache may be the result.
Treatment: Tension headaches are usually best handled with over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen before the pain gets severe. Those aren’t cures, but they will temporarily relieve the pain. In general, your best bet is to rest and relax until the headache goes away. Even a hot pepper may provide some relief.
To cut back on the frequency of these types of headaches, you need to identify your triggers and reduce them. If a headache comes from stress, meditation may help. If you’re hungry, then eat. If eyestrain is the cause, get away from the computer for a while. If your headaches are particularly frequent, your doctor may suggest other solutions.
Prevention: Tension headaches are best prevented by tuning your routine to minimise potential triggers. Trial-and-error is often needed to find the exact cause of a tension headache, but if you know they come around when you’re stressed or when you eat particular foods, then you can work on preventing them.
If you get a headache (or you’re getting them a lot), think back through the day and see what you did differently. If something stands out, it might be the trigger.
If alcohol is the cause, you have a few ways of dealing with it. The same goes for those headaches caused by 3D movies, or eyestrain. With eyestrain, it’s also worth looking into seeing if you might need glasses as well (or learn to clean yours properly). If your headaches come from bad posture, that can be improved, and ergonomically optimising your workspace can help as well. Photo by Rob Sinclair.
Migraines are typically described as a moderate to severe pounding pain that can last from three hours to several days. You may also experience symptoms such as sensitivity to light, noise or odours, as well as nausea and loss of appetite.
Causes: According to the Mayo Clinic, the exact causes of migraines are still unclear, though it’s thought that genetics and your environment can both cause migraines (around 70 per cent of migraine sufferers have a hereditary influence). It’s thought that hormonal changes, stress, unusual sensory stimuli (like weird odours or bright lights), changes in sleep patterns, and even a change in the weather can all act as potential triggers for a migraine. Your diet can also play a role in migraines.
Treatment: Migraine treatments can be complex, but prescription triptans are the most widely-used pain relievers for people with chronic migraine issues. In the middle of a migraine stretching can relieve some symptoms. If all else fails, when you’re waiting out the pain, a cold head wrap may provide a little relief.
Prevention: While migraines may be hereditary, they’re still usually initiated by triggers, and it’s typically recommended that you identify those triggers and avoid them. Again, a headache diary can be helpful in narrowing down those triggers. It’s also thought that light exercises like walking can help prevent migraines.
While the research is inconclusive, remedies including butterbur (a plant extract), magnesium (found in wheat bread, almonds, spinach) and riboflavin (found in cereals, pastas and sauces) may be effective in reducing the frequency of attacks for some people. Setting a consistent sleep pattern is also thought to help reduce the frequency of migraines. Photo by Robbie Wagner
Sinus headaches are characterised by a constant pain in the bridge of your nose, and around the cheek bones and forehead. These are also usually accompanied by other unpleasant symptoms such as ear aches, fever, swelling in the face and a runny nose.
Causes: A sinus headache occurs when the sinus gets inflamed, usually from an allergic reaction (that causes sinus congestion) or infection (like a cold or flu). The inflammation causes swelling and increased mucus production, which in turn blocks everything up.
Treatment: Treatment of a sinus headache is a tricky business because you’re attacking on two different fronts: the pain relief of the headache itself, and treating the sinus infection. According to WebMD, the best treatment is usually an antibiotic to deal with the infection and antihistamines to help you deal with the symptoms. During a sinus headache, drinking lots of fluids is key to recovery. A humidifier or salt water nasal spray is often helpful.
Prevention: Since sinus headaches often come from two sources, prevention is all about lowering your exposure to both. For allergy related headaches, humidifiers, nasal sparays, steam and neck stretches are thought to help. Certain dietary supplements may also help, including bromelain (found in pineapple stems), and quercetin (brewed black or green teal, kale and red onions).
If the infection comes from a cold or flu, then your best tactic is to avoid getting sick. Making sure you get plenty of sleep, washing your hands, and cutting out cigarettes and alcohol are the best way to prevent illness. Photo by Eunice.