Up to half of us worldwide have had a headache at some point in the last year, but what’s causing yours? Health journalist Rosalind Ryan asks the experts about the most common headaches and how to tackle them.
The International Headache Society says there are 150 different types of headache, a stat which might give you a headache just thinking about it! But working out what type of headache you have can help you treat it – and beat it. Here, Professor Anne MacGregor, a clinical headache specialist, and Susan Haydon, Head of Information for The Migraine Trust, describe five of the most common headaches and how you can overcome them.
1. Tension headache
Where? A tight band around the head, or a heavy pressure all over the head.
The World Health Organisation says tension headaches are the most common type – around one third of men and over half of women suffer from them. Squinting at a computer screen for hours can lead to tension headaches; you may feel an ache or pressure behind your eyes.“They’re usually caused however by muscle tension – from poor posture at a computer or lifting a heavy object,” says Professor MacGregor. “Stress and anxiety are also common triggers.”
Tackle your headache: Painkillers can help, but be careful not to take them more than three days a week as this can lead to medication-misuse headaches. “For long-term management, it’s better to treat the cause of your tension headaches,” says Professor MacGregor. Get your eyes tested, and make sure your desk is properly set up to improve your posture. Tackle stress with yoga, mediation or other relaxation techniques, and exercise regularly too.
2. Migraine headaches
Where? A throbbing or pulsating pain on one side of the head.
Migraine is very common, affecting one in seven of us worldwide. It’s three times more common in women, suggesting there may be a hormonal link. “As well as the throbbing in the head, you may also become sensitive to light and sound, and feel sick or actually be sick.” says Haydon.
Some people get migraine with aura – visual disturbances like flashing lights or zigzag lines – before the headache turns up. “There is no known cause of migraine, but some people are more genetically predisposed to develop them,” explains Haydon. “However, there are some common triggers which can set off a migraine.”
Tackle your headache: Painkillers can relieve a migraine, but the best way to tackle them is to identify your triggers. “You can do this by keeping a diary,” says Haydon. “Write down things like what time you get up and go to sleep, what you eat and drink or even what the weather is like.” Once you know what your triggers are, you can avoid them. If you are experiencing regular migraines, be sure to visit your GP.
3. Caffeine headache
Where? All over the head but they can start across the forehead.
Despite the name, a caffeine headache is actually caused by caffeine withdrawal. “It can often happen at weekends, when you forgo your morning tea or coffee in favour of a lie-in,” says Professor MacGregor. The pain is normally severe, like a migraine. You may also feel irritable and have difficulty concentrating.
Tackle your headache: “The simple way to beat them is quit drinking caffeine!” says Professor MacGregor. If you can’t go cold turkey, cut down to one or two caffeinated drinks a day; that includes tea, coffee, colas, hot chocolate and energy drinks. To get over the headache itself, taking painkillers should do the trick. But beware – some painkillers contain caffeine, which can set you off on the withdrawal rollercoaster all over again.
4. Cluster headache
Where? Intense pain, usually felt on one side of the head, over one eye.
“Cluster headache is one of the most painful conditions known to mankind, and women suffering from them describe the pain as worse than childbirth!” says Haydon. Cluster headaches come on suddenly, and can last from 15 minutes to three hours. You may have between one and eight attacks a day, at roughly the same time of day for several days.
Tackle your headache: Despite intense medical research, the cause of cluster headaches is still not known. “However, research has highlighted changes in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, the area that controls the body clock,” says Professor MacGregor. This suggests it may be worth keeping to a regular routine to help avoid any disturbance to your body’s daily rhythm. Try getting up and going to sleep at the same times, and eating regularly spaced meals. You can take certain painkillers for cluster headaches, but these are only available on prescription.
5. Hormonal headache
Where? A throbbing pain on one side of the head.
Many women who suffer from migraines say their period can be a trigger, but there is also a condition known as menstrual migraine. “Menstrual migraine is associated with falling levels of oestrogen,” advises Haydon. “Studies show it is most likely to occur in the two days leading up to your period and the first three days of a period.” You won’t get an aura with this type of migraine, but you may experience other symptoms such as throbbing pain on one side of the head.
Tackle your headache: Track your headaches to see if they are related to your periods. “This will also help you to identify non-hormonal triggers that you can try to avoid during the most vulnerable times of your menstrual cycle,” says Haydon. Take painkillers to deal with the headache, but “there are treatments available to help prevent monthly attacks, such as hormonal contraceptives like the Pill,” says Professor MacGregor.
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