More than 10 million people in the UK suffer from headaches regularly, making them one of the most common reasons they see their GP. The problem with headaches is that there are so many different types and different causes, which can make them hard to diagnose. However, most headaches are not serious and can be easily treated. When left untreated, headaches can significantly affect your ability to function at work and in your daily life.
Keep scrolling for the main types and causes of headaches, plus some useful tips and treatments to help you manage them.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache people experience. It is often described as a “band-like pressure” across the temples. It can also spread into your scalp and neck.
The underlying cause is unknown, but the main feature is muscle tension, which creates the pressure across the forehead.
The main triggers which cause tension-type headaches include:
- Eye strain
- Emotional stress
- Environmental factors such as bright light, poor lighting, noise and working on a computer for long periods
Simple painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are the most effective medications for treating tension headaches. Research shows that anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin are best, however their use is limited if you have asthma or stomach problems like acid indigestion, heart burn or stomach ulcers. In this situation, it is best to see your GP to find safer alternatives.
As with many health problems, taking a step back and reflecting on your lifestyle is always useful to help identify any potential causes of your headache. Keeping a headache diary is a great way to look at your lifestyle on a day-to-day basis in a window of time. Keep a note of the timings and duration of your headaches. What were you doing at the time when they had started? What had you eaten and drank that day? How much sleep did you have? Were you working? Or did it happen during your leisure time? How stressed were you? What helped relieve the headache?
Lots of questions, I know! But investing the time to reflect on your headache in conjunction with your lifestyle can help you effectively identify the triggers and relieving factors related to your headache. You will also uncover what are the most effective treatment options for you and more importantly, help reduce the headaches in the future.
Stress and anxiety are nearly always associated with tension headaches. Make sure you factor into your schedule time to relax and unwind. We all are busy, but failure to do this can lead to burnout and chronic fatigue, which again can trigger tension headaches.
Exercise, especially a combination of cardio and yoga or Pilates, helps you let off steam without overly stressing an already stressed body and mind.
Relaxation techniques, meditation and mindfulness all have a big role to play in this too.
Migraines are a specific type of headache. They are episodic, which means they occur in attacks. The attacks are often associated with nausea, vomiting, and inability to be around bright lights (photophobia) and loud noises (phonophobia).
The frequency of attacks can vary from person to person. They can be as frequent as weekly, monthly or even yearly. Migraines are more common in women. Migraines are divided into two groups:
- Migraines with aura
- Migraines without aura
An aura is basically a warning sign that happens before the main symptoms of migraine kick in. An aura is a sensory symptom, such as:
- Flashes of light
- Temporary loss of vision
- Numbness and pins and needles
- Problems with speech
- Strange smells
What causes a migraine?
The underlying cause is not fully understood. Some theories focus on the changes in blood flow to the brain, whilst others believe it is a related to chemical transmitter activity in the brain. Most likely it is a combination of the two.
The main triggers to a migraine attack include:
- Diet: cheese, chocolate, red wine, citrus fruits, tyramine (food additive)
- Medication: HRT, the combined oral contraceptive pill, some painkillers
- Hormones: periods, menopause
- Lifestyle: lack of sleep, excessive exercise
- Mental health: stress and anxiety
- Environmental: smoking, long periods working on a computer screen, eye strain, loud noises
As you can see, there are many triggers, and the impact they have can all vary greatly from person to person. As with all types of headaches, it’s a good idea to reflect on your lifestyle and keep a diary to see if a pattern emerges with your lifestyle activities and the frequency of your migraines.
Managing migraines can be complex and should always be done under medical supervision. There are many different medications your doctor can prescribe. They include anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
Triptans such as sumatriptan and zolmitriptan are a specific type of drugs that are used to treat migraines. They are not painkillers; therefore, they are only effective on migraines. They work by altering the levels of a chemical called 5HT in the brain which is thought to have a role in migraine attacks.
Migraines can cause severe pain and be extremely debilitating, affecting your ability to function in your day-to-day life. If this occurs it is important you visit your doctor for further investigations and referral to a specialist if needed. There are medications that can be prescribed to help prevent migraines, so it is definitely worth talking to your doctor to explore this option if your migraines are impacting your quality of life.
This is ironic, but, unfortunately, it is an extremely common cause of headache. It can occur when people take medication to help cure their headache, or it can happen as a side effect of taking painkillers to ease the pain from another source.
The main culprit is opiate-based medications like codeine. The triptan group of medications, which are used to treat a migraine, can also cause medication-induced headaches. The least likely group of medications to cause this are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen and also the most effective treatment for headaches in general, hence why NSAIDS are the first line of treatment.
Medication-overuse headaches can be challenging to treat; as the pain still needs to be controlled, but the medication needs to be changed in the safest way possible. This is best managed by your doctor. If you feel your headaches may fit into this category, visit your doctor and they will work with you to try to reduce your medication, without triggering a flare-up in your pain symptoms or withdrawal effects from the medication.
Headaches can also be triggered in women at different times in their cycle, secondary to changing hormone levels. For example, migraines are more likely leading up to your period or the first three days during a period, due to falling levels of oestrogen.
Headaches are also a common feature of menopause, again due to changing hormone levels, when the ovaries stop produce oestrogen and progesterone.
The combined oral contraceptive pill can also cause headaches. If this occurs, or if you start to develop migraines whilst taking the pill it is very important that you visit your doctor for a reassessment and to discuss an alternative form of contraception, as a migraine with an aura is a contra-indication to the COP.
- Headaches are common.
- They can occur alone or as a symptom of any another medical condition.
- There are many different types of headaches.
- The medication prescribed to treat headaches depends on the underlying cause.
- But, regardless of the cause, it is essential to reflect on your lifestyle, particular related to; stress mood, sleep, diet and exercise.
- Lifestyle adaptations will not only reduce the severity of your headaches but help to keep them from reoccurring in the future.
- If your headache persists and is not settling with over the counter treatments, it is a good idea to visit your doctor to look into your symptoms more closely.