by Dr. Behrouz Hashim.
What is a headache?
A Headache is defined as a pain in the head. It is one of the most common locations of pain in the body and has many causes.
There are three major categories of headaches:
- primary headaches,
- secondary headaches, and
- cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches
Avoiding your headache triggers – including stress, dehydration, and too little sleep — can help you stay pain-free. You’ll soon find that preventing a headache is a lot easier than treating one.
Headache Prevention: What You Can Control
There are headache triggers you can control, and those you can’t. Some triggers in the latter category are the weather and, if you’re female, the hormonal fluctuations that occur with menstruation, ovulation, and menopause.
Headache Prevention: Common Triggers
The following are common triggers for headaches and migraines, and many are within your control:
- Drinking alcohol, and red wine in particular
- Sensory overload — exposure to lights that are too bright, sounds that are too loud, or smells that are overpowering
- Dehydration — not drinking enough water
- Too much sleep or not enough sleep
- Exercising too rigorously
- Hormonal changes
- Not eating frequently enough
- Straining your eyes reading or sitting at a computer
- A difference in your caffeine intake — just skipping your morning cup for one day can cause a caffeine-withdrawal headache
- Food additives or naturally-occurring substances, including nitrates in processed meats, MSG in fast food and Chinese food, tyramine found in certain aged cheeses and soy-based foods, and the artificial sweetener aspartame.
Headache Prevention: Keeping a Diary
Knowing your headache triggers enables you to start your own headache prevention program. Keeping a diary will help you figure out which of the many possible headache triggers affects you personally. In your headache diary, you should record each day:
- All foods you eat
- All beverages you drink
- Medicines you take
- What time you wake up and go to bed
- All exercise and any other physical activities you undertake
Log each headache that you get, what time of day it occurred, and what you did to resolve it. It’s also a good idea to track what the weather was like and any hormonal changes, such as when you ovulated and began your period.
After a while, you should begin to see patterns.
Headache Prevention: Easy Techniques
Practicing these easy steps will help you avoid many common triggers:
- Maintain good posture, and move around during the day. Make sure your neck isn’t remaining stiff and that you’re moving it around if you’re doing desk work, says Green. Also, take your eyes away from the computer every so often to avoid eyestrain.
- Get the right pillows. “People should be careful to evaluate their pillows. A lot of people should travel with their [home] pillow because we don’t often like changes in pillows,” says Green.
- Stay consistent. Keep a regular schedule, and don’t greatly vary your diet or your waking, sleeping, and exercise routines.
- Get an appropriate amount of sleep. Either too much or too little shuteye can leave your head pounding, so make sure you get a steady eight hours each night.
- Stick to a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Healthy foods and regular exercise help ward off headaches. Never skip meals, and have a small, healthy snack between meals so that you don’t get too hungry.
- Drink water. Dehydration can lead to headache, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Manage stress. Stress can build up and cause your head to pound, so find ways to deal with it. Take up a hobby, exercise, try yoga, and do some deep breathing when you feel stress creeping in.
Even if you can’t stop every headache from happening, a few simple changes can help you avoid at least a few. Headache prevention is less painful than dealing with a headache, so make changes today to prevent a headache tomorrow.
What causes tension headaches?
While tension headaches are the most frequently occurring type of headache, their cause is not known. The most likely cause is contraction of the muscles that cover the skull. When the muscles covering the skull are stressed, they may spasm and cause pain. Common sites include the base of the skull where the trapezius muscles of the neck inserts, the temple where muscles that move the jaw are located, and the forehead.
What are the symptoms of tension headaches?
The pain symptoms of a tension headache are:
- The pain begins in the back of the head and upper neck and is described as a band-like tightness or pressure.
- Often is described as pressure encircling the head with the most intense pressure over the eyebrows.
- The pain usually is mild (not disabling) and bilateral (affecting both sides of the head).
- The pain allows most people to function normally, despite the headache.
How is tension headaches treated?
Tension headaches are painful, and patients may be upset that the diagnosis is “only” a tension headache. Even though it is not life-threatening, a tension headache can affect the activities of daily life.
Most people successfully treat themselves with over-the–counter (OTC) pain medications to control tension headaches. The following work well for most people:
- ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil),
- acetaminophen (Tylenol) and
Massage, biofeedback, and stress management can all be used as adjuncts to help with control of tension headaches.
When should I seek medical care for a headache?
A patient should seek medical care if their headache is:
- The “worst headache of your life.” This is the wording often used in textbooks as a cue for medical practitioners to consider the diagnosis of a sub-arachnoids hemorrhage due to a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. The amount of pain will often be taken in context with the appearance of the patient and other associated signs and symptoms.
- Different than your usual headaches
- Starts suddenly or is aggravated by exertion, coughing, bending over, or sexual activity
- Associated with persistent nausea and vomiting
- Associated with fever or stiff neck
- Associated with seizures
- Associated with recent head trauma or a fall
- Associated with changes in vision, speech, or behavior
- Associated with weakness or change in sensation
- Not responding to treatment and is getting worse
- Requires more than the recommended dose of over-the-counter medications for pain
- Disabling and interfering with work and quality of life