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Headaches

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Headaches are very common, and most people suffer from them at some point in their life. They are usually mild, go away without any treatment within a few hours, and in most cases, are not a sign of anything serious. There are a number of different types of headache, such as:

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the commonest type of headache and may occur occasionally or every day. Occasional tension headaches are often described as a mild to moderate constant band-like pain, tightness, or pressure around the forehead or back of the head and neck and can last from 30 minutes to several days, often starting in the middle of the day. Regular or chronic tension headaches come and go over a prolonged period of time with a throbbing pain affecting the front, top, or sides of the head. It helps to learn to avoid the triggers for these headaches (such as reducing stress, and improving the set-up of your workstation) and, if possible, taking a break and using a simple pain reliever.

There is no single cause for tension headaches, but for some people they are caused by the tightening of the muscles in the back of the neck and scalp. This muscle tension may be caused by:

  • Inadequate rest
  • Poor posture
  • Emotional or mental stress, including depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Overexertion

Migraine

A migraine headache may be like a tension headache but is usually recognized as being different by being one-sided, pulsating, more severe and debilitating. Migraine most commonly brings other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and aversion to light and noise. The migraine may or may not be preceded by gradual visual disturbances (aura, spectra) such as moving lights, patterns and shapes, which develop over a few minutes and disappear as the headache worsens. The most common migraine symptoms are:

  • Throbbing, pulsating pain
  • Sound sensitivity
  • Pain on one side of the head
  • Vision changes, blurred vision
  • Aura
  • Vomiting

More women than men suffer from migraine, and it is common in children, teenagers and young adults but may begin at any age. Your genes are mostly responsible – no other single explanation has been found. Ways of treating a migraine include reducing lifestyle factors that can trigger it, using a rescue medicine that relieves migraine attacks when taken at the first sign of migraine, and - if migraines are frequent – to take a prophylactic medicine every day. If you are using rescue medicines more than three times a month, talk to your doctor about taking a prophylactic medicine.

Cluster headaches

These are repeated, sudden, short-lived, usually one-sided and severe, frontal headaches (often behind the eye). They can recur many times over weeks or months and then the person may have a spell with no headaches. Men are more prone to these and, once diagnosed, treatment with prophylactic medicines can help.

Chronic daily headaches

Some people have headaches daily or near daily for months and the headaches can be any of a number of types. However, a common factor in many people with daily headache is overuse of medicines for headache, which in itself causes what is called a painkiller headache. This may sound unusual but overusing simple painkillers and other migraine drugs can trigger regular headaches.

Women and headaches

Migraine often happens around menstruation or at other regular times of the menstrual cycle and are called menstrual migraines. Non-migraine headache is also a common feature of pre-menstrual syndrome, with female hormone fluctuations influencing these headaches. The oral contraceptive, menopause and pregnancy also may affect migraine.

What pain relief is best for headache?

Occasional tension headaches can be eased by acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen. Some people find combination pain relievers work better, but it is important to be careful with these. With acetaminophen and ibuprofen, it is important to take the prescribed dose; take care if using cough-cold medicines as they also often contain these ingredients.

Children under the age of 16 should avoid aspirin entirely. Acetaminophen causes few problems if doses are not exceeded but anyone with gastric, kidney, breathing or bleeding problems should consult their doctor about using analgesics that are also anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Lifestyle changes also help prevent headaches. Getting more exercise, avoiding known stresses or triggers, improving your sleep and diet can all help.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

You don’t usually need to see a doctor for the management of your headache; your local pharmacist can provide you with support.

They may suggest painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. These medicines shouldn’t be taken for more than a few days at a time.

What causes a headache?

A long list of things can trigger headaches. Common culprits are stress, dehydration, tiredness, menstruation, certain smells and noises. Other potential triggers are poor posture, poor light and poor eyesight.

When should I see my doctor?

You should make an appointment to see your doctor if you are unable to control your headaches with simple measures. If your headaches are more severe than expected or happening more frequently than a few times a month then your doctor would want to know.

You should see your doctor if you experience headaches that come on suddenly and are the worst you have ever experienced. If there are any changes such as slurred speech, confusion, weakness, numbness, or if your headaches occur with fever, nausea or vomiting or neck stiffness, it would be best to treat this as an emergency and seek urgent medical attention.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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