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Stop the Pain: Headaches

Stop the Pain: Headaches

What is a headache?
What are the different types of headache?
How can I treat a headache?
What is a headache diary?

What is a headache?
Headache simply means pain in the head. But there doesn't seem to be anything simple about it when your head hurts! There are many different types of headaches. A headache can be the only symptom you have, or it can occur with almost any illness. For example, you may get a headache when you have an upper respiratory infection or cold. This article focuses on those situations in which headache is the main symptom.

You may get headaches if you eat certain foods. Some people are sensitive to ingredients in processed food such as artificial sweeteners. Others may not be able to eat foods with certain additives and preservatives. You may even know someone who is sensitive to monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer used in soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, and some Chinese food and other restaurant foods. back to top

What are the different types of headache?
There are three main types of headache: tension headache, migraine, and headaches caused by problems inside the skull.

People of all ages get tension headaches. They are probably caused by spasms of the muscles in the head and neck and may be brought on by stress or tension. Usually, tension headaches start in the afternoon or evening. You may feel a dull, constant ache all over your head or in the forehead or sides of the head.

Migraine headaches are more severe. They appear to be caused by a change in blood flow in the brain. Before you feel migraine headache pain, you may experience something called an "aura." This set of symptoms can include numbness or tingling in your hands, feet, or lips. Some girls see flashing or strobing lights or notice a strange smell or taste shortly before getting a migraine headache. And you may experience anxiety or mood changes. Most girls who get migraines describe the headache as pounding. The pain can occur on one or both sides of the head. And you may have other symptoms as well, such as sensitivity to light (photophobia), nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.

Although it is extremely rare, headache can be caused by a problem inside the skull, such as a brain tumor. These headaches often occur in the middle of the night or early in the morning. The pain may be dull but severe, and you may throw up. back to top

How can I treat a headache?
The majority of headaches are tension headaches. The best treatment is prevention through stress reduction and relaxation techniques like progressive relaxation and biofeedback. Some people find yoga helps prevent tension headaches. If you have a tension headache, try taking a mild pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In general, pain relievers work best if you take the recommended dose as soon as you feel the headache coming on. Don't wait until your head is pounding!

Migraine headaches tend to be much more severe and more bothersome. You may find that nonprescription pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen will relieve your headache symptoms. If not, talk to your health professional about other treatment options. There are a variety of powerful medications that can help control the symptoms of migraine headaches. Some prescription medications can reduce the frequency of migraines by preventing them or cutting them short as soon as they begin.

Any time you have a severe headache, or if you are having headaches that keep coming back, you should see your health professional. She or he can do a physical examination to make sure that there are no serious problems causing your headache. If you get headaches all the time, you may want to keep a headache diary to help your health professional figure out the best treatment for you. back to top

What is a headache diary?
A headache diary is a calendar in which you make notes about each headache you get. Use these questions as a guide for your notes:
  • How bad is the headache pain on a scale of 1 (mild pain) to 10 (worst headache of my life)?
  • Do you have any other symptoms, such as feeling sick to your stomach?
  • How long has the headache lasted?
  • Were there any stressful events that may have triggered the headache?
  • Did you smoke cigarettes before the headache started?
  • Did you drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages before you got the headache?
  • Did you eat anything with MSG or other additives in it?
If you get your period, note those days of the month in your headache diary. You should also make a list of any medications you are taking. Give your health professional a copy of the diary for your medical record. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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