Nearly everyone experiences a headache occasionally. A headache can be mild or so debilitating that people cannot engage in normal functions.
The most common types of primary headaches are:
- Migraine, experienced by about 12% of Americans, characterized by moderate to severe pounding, throbbing pain
- Tension-type headache, usually mild to moderate, often caused by clenching muscles, stress, or too little sleep
- Cluster headache, a rare, extremely painful disorder that occurs repeatedly at the same time of day for several weeks
Secondary headaches are caused by irritations to the nerve endings by a separate condition, like fever, injury, stroke, or a tumor.
Most headaches do not require medical attention, and will disappear on their own. However, if you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention:
- Sudden, severe headache, possibly with a stiff neck
- Severe headache with fever, nausea, or vomiting unrelated to another illness
- Headache with confusion, weakness, vision problems, or loss of consciousness
- Recurring headache in a child
- Head injury
- Headache with loss of feeling anywhere in the body
- Headache with seizure or shortness of breath
- Multiple headaches in a week
If you have recurrent headaches, keeping a headache diary may help you discern triggers and patterns. If you see a doctor, he/she will ask you about when you get headaches, and perform a physical examination. In some cases, imaging tests like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered. An EEG may be ordered if the neurologist suspects that a seizure may be causing the headaches. Also, and overnight sleep study for the potential diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea may also be done for early morning headaches.
For mild headaches, at-home treatments like rest and relaxation and neck massage can provide relief. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen are also helpful, but these drugs should never be used on a daily basis because these medications may worsen or prolong the headaches.
More severe or persistent headaches may be treated with prescription medications. Other medications may be prescribed to treat migraine symptoms like nausea and vomiting