Headaches are one of the most common health complaints in the world today, but the good news is that most can be treated with over the counter painkillers or lifestyle changes. There are two main types of headaches: tension headaches which account for 70% of all headaches and migraine headaches which account for 20%. These differ in their causes and symptoms, and in the treatment that is prescribed.
Causes of Headache
Tension headaches are usually experienced as a constant ache which generally affects both sides of the head. In general they last for between one and six hours but in some cases they are persistent. A tension headache can be caused by any number of things including:
• Anxiety, stress, depression or emotional tension
• Poor posture
• Bright sunlight
• Certain foods
• Menstrual periods
• Using painkillers on a daily basis
Migraines on the other hand are less common. They are much more severe and usually appear as a throbbing pain in one area of the head. They can be completely debilitating and the migraine headache causes are thought to be down to hormonal brain changes. However there are a number of triggers that are said to be linked to a migraine headaches cause. These include:
• Emotional triggers such as anxiety, depression, excitement and shock
• Physical triggers such as poor posture, travelling, tiredness and tension
• Environmental triggers such as loud noises, strong smells and bright lights
• Dietary triggers such as alcohol, dieting, dehydration and caffeine
• Specific medicines such as the contraceptive pill, sleeping tablets and medication for HRT.
Headache symptoms again differ depending on the type of headache that is being experienced. As some of the headache causes are very similar it can often be hard to recognise a tension headache from a migraine in its early stages. However there are some distinct symptoms with a migraine that do not occur in a tension headache.
The tension headache symptoms include:
• Mild to moderate pain
• Pain on both sides of the head – this is the main tension headache symptom that differs from a migraine
• It is not made worse with daily activity
Migraines on the other hand are much more severe. Migraine headache symptoms include:
• Nausea and sickness
• Increased sensitivity to light
• Feelings of extreme heat or cold
• Abdominal pain
• Poor concentration
• Intense pain in one area of the head
Some people who suffer from migraines may also experience symptoms such as stiffness and tingling, difficulty speaking, co-ordination and visual problems before their migraine appears in full force. This is known as a migraine aura and is experienced in 30% of migraine cases.
Headache Treatment Options
Most tension headaches and migraine headaches can be easily treated with over the counter pain relief such as paracetamol and aspirin. Other tension headache treatment options can include anti-depressants (for persistent tension headaches) and occipital nerve stimulation.
There are extensive migraine headache treatment options if usual pain relief doesn’t help to alleviate the pain. These include:
• Anti-sickness medication – this is usually prescribed if nausea or vomiting migraine headache symptoms are experienced.
• Anti-inflammatory medication – medication such as ibuprofen can be bought over the counter but for severe migraine headaches, prescription anti-inflammatory medication may also be prescribed.
• Triptan medication – again this is on a prescription only basis, but Triptan is renowned for relieving migraine headache symptoms.
If the migraine headache symptoms are experienced it is likely that your doctor will refer you to a specialist migraine clinic for further evaluation.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you are highly advised to speak to your GP before opting to take any of the headache treatment options listed above. The same advice goes for if you are experiencing tension headaches or migraines on a persistent basis.