Headaches, known as cephalgia, are defined as the pain experienced in the head particularly behind the head, the back of the upper neck, and above the eyes or ears. There are two types, namely, primary (not associated with an underlying medical condition) and secondary (associated with an underlying health condition like brain tumors, meningitis and strokes). Several causes can be attributed to the severity, frequency and duration of cephalgia episodes so it is important to be as specific as possible about these aspects for diagnostic purposes. The more definitive the diagnosis as to the type of cephalgia, the more effective the treatment plan will be.
We must emphasize that the headaches discussed here are the primary types, which can be managed with several treatment options. Secondary cephalgia should be treated by addressing the underlying medical condition first.
For primary cephalgia, there are three major types:
- Tension cephalgia is the most common with up to 90% of adults experiencing its symptoms at one point in their lives. It’s most likely cause is the contractions of the muscles covering the skull with the most affected sites being the base of the head, the forehead, and the temple.
- Migraines affect approximately 28 million Americans with both children and adults in the affected cohort. These cephalgia attacks are triggered by hormonal changes in females such as during pregnancy; food like alcohol, aged cheeses and aspartame; stress; sensory stimuli like bright lights, unpleasant odors, and secondhand smoke; changes in wake-sleep pattern and in the environment; and medications like vasodilators.
- Cluster cephalgia is relatively rare with just 1 in 1,000 individuals affected by it. Its cause is still unknown although scientists believe that the abnormal activity in the hypothalamus may be at fault. This type also tends to run in families and may be triggered by medications, substances and environmental changes.
The symptoms of headaches will obviously vary depending on the type.
- The symptoms of tension cephalgia include mild, bilateral and sporadic pain akin to a band-like pressure around the head particularly over the eyebrows. Despite the pain, you will still be able to function normally.
- The signs of migraines are throbbing, pounding or pulsating pain beginning from one side of the head and then spreading to both sides. You may also experience a group of symptoms like nausea, changes in vision, and aggravated pain with each movement.
- The symptoms of cluster headaches usually last for weeks or months with reprieves for months or years. Each attack comes with excruciating pain around or behind one of your eyes, which may become watery, red and inflamed, while your nose becomes runny and congested. Such is the pain experienced during an attack that you may bang your head against the wall, among other desperate measures to relieve your pain.
Fortunately, you have several options to relieve the pain of a cephalgia attack. You must consult with your doctor especially on matters of medications to lessen side effects, drug interactions, and risks. Your doctor will suggest:
- Muscle relaxation exercises
- Sufficient sleep with normal sleep patterns
- Avoiding your cephalgia triggers
- Pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and naproxen
- Healthy diet, exercise and stress management program
Your headaches can be effectively managed but you must work with your doctor to do so.