Carolinas HealthCare System
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Headache 101

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A headache, although annoying and sometimes limiting, is rarely a symptom of a serious condition. “Most people with headaches can feel much better by making lifestyle changes, learning ways to relax and sometimes by taking medications,” said Laurence Kish, MD, from Kings Mountain Internal Medicine, part of
Carolinas HealthCare System.

Types of Headaches and Their Causes

The most common type of headaches are likely caused by tight muscles in your shoulders, neck, scalp and jaw. These are called tension headaches and, according to Dr. Kish, may be related to stress, depression, anxiety, a head injury, or holding your head and neck in an abnormal position. Tension headaches tend to be on both sides of your head. They often start at the back of your head and spread forward. The pain may feel dull or squeezing, like a tight band or vice. Your shoulders, neck, or jaw may feel tight or sore.

Migraine headaches are severe headaches that usually occur with other symptoms such as vision changes or nausea. “The pain of a migraine may be throbbing, pounding or pulsating,” said Dr. Kish. “It tends to begin on one side of your head, although it may spread to both sides. You may have what’s called an ‘aura,’ a group of warning symptoms that start before your headache.” The pain usually gets worse as you try to move around. These headaches may be triggered by foods such as chocolate, certain cheeses or MSG. Caffeine withdrawal, lack of sleep and alcohol may also trigger them.

Another common headache is a sinus headache, which typically causes pain in the front of your head and face. According to Dr. Kish, these are due to swelling in the sinus passages behind the cheeks, nose and eyes. The pain tends to be worse when you bend forward and when you first wake up in the morning.

Headaches may also occur if you have a cold, the flu, a fever or premenstrual syndrome.

Home Care

There may be things you can do to relieve the symptoms of a headache. Dr. Kish recommends trying to treat the symptoms right away, with the following approaches:

  • Drink water to avoid getting dehydrated, especially if you have vomited
  • Rest in a quiet, dark room
  • Place a cool cloth on your head
  • Use any relaxation techniques you have learned
  • Acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen may help. Do NOT give aspirin to children. Talk to your doctor if you are taking pain medicines 3 or more days a week.

If you tend to have frequent headaches, your doctor may recommend you keep a headache diary to help find the source or trigger of your symptoms. When a headache occurs, make note of the following:

  • The date and time the headache began
  • What you ate for the past 24 hours
  • How long you slept the night before
  • What you were doing and thinking about just before the headache started
  • Any stress in your life
  • How long the headache lasted
  • What you did to make it stop

Call Your Doctor

Some headaches may be a sign of a more serious illness. Anyone who experiences the following should seek medical help immediately:

  • This is the first headache you have ever had in your life and it interferes with your daily activities
  • Your headache comes on suddenly and is explosive or violent
  • You would describe your headache as "your worst ever," even if you regularly get headaches
  • You also have slurred speech, a change in vision, problems moving your arms or legs, loss of balance, confusion or memory loss with your headache
  • Your headache gets worse over a 24-hour period
  • You also have a fever, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting with your headache
  • Your headache occurs with a head injury
  • Your headache is severe and just in one eye, with redness in that eye
  • You are over age 50 and your headaches just began, especially if you also have vision problems and pain while chewing
  • You have cancer and develop a new headache

We’re Here When You Need Us

If you’d like to connect with a primary care doctor at Carolinas HealthCare System who can help you get well and stay well, call 844-881-2180 or complete an online request formto find a doctor near you.