Headaches are very common; in fact, almost everyone will have a headache at some point. As common as they may be, however, not a whole lot of consensus exists about what causes headaches.
Headaches are hard to study for various reasons. First of all, people experience pain differently. One person may rate his or her headache pain as a 10 on a scale of 1-10, while the same headache might be rated by another person as a 5. So measuring headache pain in a standard way that accounts for the individual way people feel pain is almost impossible, and in the end, studies are limited to human subjects.
Headaches may be divided into two broad categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are not caused by problems with a person’s internal structure or organs or by bacteria, viruses, or other organisms. Migraine, cluster, tension, and rebound headaches are all types of primary headaches. Secondary headaches are those caused by an underlying structural or organic disease.
Common triggers of migraine headaches include heat, stress, and lack of sleep or food. Not every headache sufferer is sensitive to these triggers, but virtually all persons with migraine headaches (called migraineurs) have some environmental trigger. About 70 percent of migraineurs have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) with a history of migraines. People with an inherited tendency for headaches may respond more easily than others to these external stress factors. Some experts have, therefore, thought that headache is an adaptive and developed response. Most primary headaches slowly develop over minutes to hours. The pain experienced in headache is transmitted by the slowest of all unmyelinated nerves. Unmyelinated nerves lack a myelin sheath, or covering, and send impulses slowly.
Secondary headaches are related to physical problems and include the following: lesions inside the head, meningeal irritation, post-traumatic headache, temporal arteritis (an inflammation of some arteries outside the skull), Postlumbar puncture (spinal tap), referred pain coming from a neighboring structure such as the neck or jaw, or idiopathic intracranial hypertension (benign intracranial hypertension.)
Headaches can’t be cured, but they can be controlled. Many medications can either stop the pain associated with headaches or stop the symptoms, like nausea, that accompany them. So talk to your doctor if you suffer from recurring headaches or seem to have a headache that, “just won’t go away.”
Bear in mind, however, that using medication should be only one part of a wellness program. Lifestyle changes—such as avoidance of any known headache triggers, personal and family counseling, stress management, and relaxation therapy—should accompany any drug plan your doctor prescribes.
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT INTENDED AS MEDICAL ADVICE. PLEASE BE SURE TO SEEK THE ADVICE OF A LICENSED MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL BEFORE ADMINISTERING ANY MEDICAL CARE.