Whether it feels like a tight band, constantly pressing against your forehead, or an intense throbbing behind one eye, headaches come in all shapes and sizes and it is estimated that over 10 million of us seek help from our doctors with them. Add the fact that some 25 million working and school days are lost simply to migraines, and you get the picture of how debilitating they are. Headaches can be caused by many different factors; lack of sleep, hormonal changes, colds and flu, too much alcohol, dehydration, and even taking too many painkillers. Headaches are typically categorised into several groups; tension headaches, cluster headaches, rebound headaches, sinus headaches and migraines. Here we examine each one and find out the best course of treatment for each type of headache.
This is the most common type of headache and typically feels like a constant aching or pressure, like a band across your head which tightens up. The pressure can be on both sides of the head or at the back of the head and neck. Tension headaches are usually triggered by stress, anxiety, bad posture, and clenching your jaw, and these headaches can become chronic, although they usually do not become severe. To treat tension headaches you can take any over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. Stress-relief or massage may also help.
Known commonly as the ‘suicide’ headaches because of their excruciating pain, these headaches occur on one side and last for anything from 15 minutes to 3 hours. Called ‘cluster’ because they tend to cluster around a certain period of time, they occur regularly, sometimes even multiple times daily, and then may be followed by a headache-free period of months or even years. You can even get redness and tearing in one or both eyes. They are more common in men than women, and are best treated with triptans or oxygen (OTC painkillers may not help). Triggers can include alcohol, cigarettes, high altitudes, and certain foods.
Rebound headaches are headaches that are caused by medication overuse. If you find you are regularly taking aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen or triptans (migraine drugs) for over 10 days in every month, this can put you at risk from suffering rebound headaches within a few months. It is very difficult to stop the cycle of taking drugs to stop the headaches so if you suspect this may be a problem you should see your GP. Your doctor can help you stop taking the culprit drug, using alternatives until it’s completely out of your system.
Often misdiagnosed, these types of headaches are usually confused with migraines, in fact, people with migraines often mistake them for sinus headaches. (One study found that 88% of people with a history of sinus headaches probably had migraines instead.) Sinus headaches will present symptoms such as sinus pressure, nasal congestion, and watery eyes. There will typically be a related infection and a nasal discharge that is green or tinged with red. Treat sinus headaches with antibiotics if the symptoms do not clear up by themselves.
Migraines are severe headaches that can last from 2 hours to 72 hours. They can have visual disturbances where zagged lights are seen in the visual field of the sufferer. Typically someone who is experiencing a migraine will complain of an intense throbbing behind one eye, an aversion to light and sounds, they may be nauseous and will want to be in a dark room and left alone. Ordinary OTC drugs will not help to treat a migraine, new triptans target the swollen blood vessels, thought to be the reason for the painful throbbing. Triggers are usually a change in the person’s routine, such as too much sleep, or too little, not eating or over eating, eating the wrong foods, stress or hormonal.