A headache is a very common type of pain. The pain of a headache may extend over the entire head, or it may be limited to a specific area. Headache pain may range from mild to severe. Unusual or sudden changes in posture or prolonged coughing, sneezing, or exposure to sunlight can lead to a headache. In some cases, however, a headache may be a symptom of a serious underlying condition, such as a stroke or a brain tumor.
Call your doctor immediately if your headache is severe or persistent, if it occurs after a blow to the head, or if it is accompanied by any of the following:
• dizziness, confusion, or loss of consciousness
• weakness or paralysis
Tension headaches (also called muscle contraction headaches) are the most common type of headache. These headaches produce mild to moderate pain that feels as though pressure is being applied to the head or neck. The pain may be accompanied by muscle tenderness. Tension headaches can be brought on by head or neck injury, anxiety, stress, eyestrain, or poor posture. If the headaches occur almost every day, they are referred to as chronic daily headaches, and they may cause fatigue, depression, and difficulty sleeping.
A migraine is a severe, persistent headache accompanied by certain recognizable symptoms. Migraine headaches produce intense throbbing pain that occurs on one side of the head and may spread to the other side. Evidence suggests that susceptibility to migraines is inherited.
Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sensitivity to light and noise, fever, chills, aches, and sweating. Some people experience a specific warning sign called an aura, such as a visual disturbance, just before the onset of a migraine. Migraine attacks usually last for a few hours, but more severe episodes may last for a few days. Attacks can occur several times per week or once every few years. A migraine can be completely disabling; following an attack, the person is often exhausted, irritable, or unable to concentrate.
People who have migraines may be able to identify triggers (specific substances, conditions, or circumstances that can bring on a headache), such as alcohol, monosodium glutamate (MSG; found in processed foods), tyramine
Brain and Nervous System
(found in aged cheese and red wine), or nitrates and nitrites (found in processed meat products). Other potential triggers include fluorescent lights, glaring light (such as from computer screens), high altitudes, strong smells, and sudden changes in temperature or barometric pressure.
A cluster headache is a series of headaches that affects one side of the head. Cluster headaches come on suddenly and produce intense symptoms, which may include a runny nose; drooping eyelid; and an irritated, watery eye on the affected side. The pain often centers just behind the eye. Cluster headaches often occur early in the morning and can be as brief as 15 minutes or as long as 3 hours. With episodic cluster headaches, attacks occur daily or several times per day for many weeks or months and then disappear for an extended period (months or years). With chronic cluster headaches, attacks occur at least once per week.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen will relieve most headaches. Some antidepressants are useful for treating chronic pain and may help reduce the occurrence of most types of headaches. Muscle relaxants may reduce the pain of muscle contraction headaches. People with migraine headaches can take ergot alkaloids or serotonin agonists at the onset of symptoms to help reduce the severity and duration of their headaches. Migraines
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