Knowing your headache provides relief options

By Arbesa Hyseni, Program Evaluator; U.S. Army Public Health CommandJuly 1, 2013

Do you know how burdensome headaches can be? According to the World Health Organization, headaches are among the most common disorders of the nervous system. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the world's population experiences them throughout their lifetime. The pain can be throbbing, shooting or pulsing and can show up around your temples, neck and head anytime--day or night. Headaches can be extremely disruptive, especially for the 10-15 percent of individuals with chronic and severe headaches. Scientists have yet to find a cure for all of the 200 kinds of headaches but, until they do, proper knowledge of the types of headaches out there and how to manage them will make coping easier.

Headaches are divided into two types, primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are by far the most common type of headaches. In fact more than 90 percent of all headaches are considered primary headache. Primary headaches are further classified as tension, cluster or migraine headaches.

Secondary headaches come from underlying diseases or other conditions that can derive from brain tumors to aneurysms and even lead up to abnormalities of the spinal fluid.

Tension headaches are the most common headaches among adults. Tension headaches can be episodic (less than 15 days per month), or they can occur daily, lasting from 30 minutes to several days. These headaches are described as mild to moderate, constant pain, tightness or pressure around the forehead or back of the head and neck.

Cluster headaches affect 500,000 or more Americans. This name refers to the fact that they happen in clusters where the individual will experience one to four headaches every day or every other day, often in the early hours of morning or within a few hours of falling asleep. This type of headache usually targets teens and middle-aged people and is often described as a burning, piercing or throbbing sensation and targets one side of the head surrounding the eye. People with cluster headaches feel agitated, and it is extremely difficult for them to sit still.

Another type of headache is known as a migraine--a very intense type of headache that can be chronic. Statistics show that more than 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraines, with three times as many women affected as men. Migraines are associated with sharp shooting pain predominately on one side of the head and lasting from two to 72 hours. Migraines also have other symptoms including, nausea, vomiting and high sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines make it extremely difficult to get tasks accomplished because of the constant pain and the sensitivity to noise and light.

There is no one cause of primary headaches. These headaches are often caused by a complex interplay of genetic, hormonal, developmental, behavioral and environmental factors. For example, behaviors such as a stressful lifestyle, staring at the computer screen or high consumption of alcohol as well as tobacco can trigger primary headaches. Lack of sleep paired with poor nutrition can lead to headaches, but these same behaviors may not cause headaches in everyone.

If you experience headaches, knowing the type of headache you have may help you determine how to manage it. Tension headaches are typically treated with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen and may be preventable through stress management practices. Stress management practices include massage, listening to relaxing music, finding your comfort zone (for example, taking a walk), eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water and getting enough exercise and sleep. Active-duty, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers, Army civilians, family members, and retirees may use the stress management services offered at the growing number of installation Army Wellness Centers the U.S. Army Public Health Command is launching across the Army.

Some headaches require medical attention. Secondary headaches are often a sign of something more serious. If you or someone you know experiences a sudden, new severe headache; a headache accompanied by dizziness, weakness, paralysis, speech difficulty, personality change, fever or rash; headache pain that awakens you at night; or a headache associated with a head injury, seek medical care immediately. It is especially important to seek emergency medical attention or reach out to your primary-care provider when headaches are associated with fever or stiff neck. A stiff neck may be due to meningitis or blood from a ruptured aneurysm, which can be life-threatening.

Altogether, because they range in type and treatment, headaches can be anything from inconvenient to dangerous. But if you know your type of headache, you can take steps to bring relief from your discomfort.

Related Links:

Johns Hopkins Medicine

Migraine Research Foundation

Web MD

Web MD