Headaches: Facts, Types and Treatment
According to the National Headache Foundation, over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches and of these, 28 million suffer from migraines. About 20% of children and adolescents also experience significant headaches.
Types of Headaches: There are several types of headaches; in fact, 150 diagnostic headache categories have been established. The most common types of headaches are:
Tension headaches: Also called chronic daily headaches or chronic non-progressive headaches, tension headaches are the most common type of headaches among adults and adolescents. These muscle contraction headaches cause mild to moderate pain and come and go over a prolonged period of time.
Migraines: The exact causes of migraines are unknown. A popular theory is that various triggers cause abnormal brain activity, which in turn causes changes in the blood vessels in the brain. This is called the neurovascular theory. Genetics plays a role in migraines and there are some forms of migraines that are associated with inherited abnormalities in certain parts of the brain. Migraine pain is moderate to severe, often described as pounding, throbbing pain. Migraine headaches can last from four hours to three days and usually occur one to four times per month. Migraines are associated with symptoms such as sensitivity to light, noise, or odors; nausea or vomiting; loss of appetite; and stomach upset or abdominal pain. When a child is having a migraine, he or she often looks pale, feels dizzy, blurred vision, fever, stomach upset, along with the symptoms listed above.
A small percentage of children’s migraines include recurrent (cyclic) gastrointestinal symptoms, vomiting being the most common. Cyclic vomiting means that the symptoms occur on a regular basis — about once a month. These types of migraines are sometimes called abdominal migraines.
Mixed headache syndrome: Also called transformed migraines, mixed headache syndrome is a combination of migraine and tension headaches. Both adults and children experience this type of headache.
Cluster headaches: The least common — although the most severe — type of primary headache, the pain of a cluster headache is intense and may be described as having a burning or piercing quality that is throbbing or constant. The pain is so severe that most cluster headache sufferers cannot sit still and will often pace during an attack. The pain is located behind one eye or in the eye region, without changing sides. The term “cluster headache” refers to headaches that have a characteristic grouping of attacks. Cluster headaches occur one to three times per day during a cluster period, which may last two weeks to three months. The headaches may disappear completely (go into “remission”) for months or years, only to recur.
Sinus headaches: Sinus headaches are associated with a deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. The pain usually intensifies with sudden head movement or straining and usually occurs with other sinus symptoms, such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the ears, fever, and facial swelling.
Acute headaches: Seen in children, these are headaches that occur suddenly and for the first time and have symptoms that subside after a relatively short period of time. Acute headaches most commonly result in a visit to the pediatrician’s office and/or the emergency room. If there are no neurological signs or symptoms, the most common cause for acute headaches in children and adolescents is a respiratory or sinus infection.
Hormone Headaches: Headaches in women are often associated with changing hormone levels that occur during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. Chemically induced hormone changes, such as with birth control pills also trigger headaches in some women.
Chronic progressive headaches: Also called traction or inflammatory headaches, chronic progressive headaches get worse and happen more often over time. These are the least common type of headache, accounting for less than 5% of all headaches in adults and less than 2% of all headaches in kids. Chronic progressive headaches may be the result of an illness or disorder of the brain or skull.
Are Headaches Hereditary?
Yes, headaches, especially migraines have a tendency to run in families. Most children and adolescents (90%) who have migraines have other family members with migraines. When both parents have a history of migraines, there is a 70% chance that the child will also develop migraines. If only one parent has a history of migraines, the risk drops to 25%-50%.
Causes of Headaches
Headache pain results from signals interacting between the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves. During a headache, specific nerves of the blood vessels and head muscles are activated and send pain signals to the brain. It’s not clear, however, why these signals are activated in the first place.
Headaches that occur suddenly (acute-onset) are usually due to an illness, infection, cold, or fever. Other conditions that can cause an acute headache include sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), pharyngitis (inflammation or infection of the throat), or otitis (ear infection or inflammation).
In some cases, the headaches may be the result of a blow to the head (trauma) or rarely, a sign of a more serious medical condition.
Common causes of tension headaches or chronic nonprogressive headaches include emotional stress related to family and friends, work, or school; alcohol use; skipping meals; changes in sleep patterns; excessive medication use; tension and depression. Other causes of tension headaches include eyestrain and neck or back strain due to poor posture.
Headaches can also be triggered by specific environmental factors that are shared in a family’s household, such as exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes, exposure to certain allergens, or eating certain foods, stress, pollution, noise, lighting, and weather changes are other environmental factors that can trigger headaches for some people.
Too much physical activity can also trigger a migraine in both adults and children.
Evaluation and Diagnosis: The good news for headache sufferers is that once a correct headache diagnosis is made, an effective treatment plan can be started.
If you have headache symptoms, the first step is to go to your family doctor. He or she will perform a complete physical exam and a headache evaluation. During the headache evaluation, your headache history and description of the headaches will be evaluated. You will be asked to describe your headache symptoms and characteristics as completely as possible. It is important to provide your doctor with a list of things that cause the headache, aggravate the headache, and things that you have done to relieve a headache. Keeping a headache diary can help your doctor diagnose your headache type.
For most headache sufferers, special diagnostic tests will not be necessary. However, a headache evaluation may include a CT scan or MRI if a structural disorder of the central nervous system is suspected. Both of these tests produce cross-sectional images of the brain that can reveal abnormal areas or problems. Skull X-rays are not helpful. An EEG (electroencephalogram) is also unnecessary unless you have experienced a loss of consciousness with a headache.
If your headache symptoms become worse or become more frequent despite treatment, ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist. Your family doctor should be able to provide the names of headache specialists. If you need more information, contact one of the organizations in the resource list for a list of member doctors in your state.
Treatment: Your doctor may recommend different types of treatment to try or she may recommend further testing, or refer you to a headache specialist. You should establish a reasonable time frame with your family doctor to evaluate your headache symptoms.
The proper treatment will depend on several factors, including the type and frequency of the headache and its cause. Not all headaches require medical attention. Treatment may include education, counseling, stress management, biofeedback, and medications. The treatment prescribed for you will be tailored to meet your specific needs.
When your doctor starts a treatment program, keep track of the results and how the treatment program is working. Keep your scheduled follow-up appointments so your doctor can monitor your progress and make changes in the treatment program as needed.