Oh my aching head

The changing seasons bring a lot of headaches as we dodge and weave our way through the holidays, overcrowded stores, and jammed parking lots. But families, shopping and money issues aside, millions of Americans suffer from the kind of debilitating headaches that aren’t just caused by annoying relatives and obnoxious shoppers.

Headaches tend to be hereditary — four out of five headache sufferers report family histories. Other common elements that can cause or worsen headache symptoms include weather and stress, a variety of foods and medications, fatigue, lack of exercise, skipping meals, and consuming alcohol, caffeine and tobacco products.

Most headaches are tension headaches. These headaches tend to happen again and again, especially if you are under stress. They are not usually a sign of something serious. But they can be very painful and hard to live with, and can last from 30 minutes to several days.

If you have a headache on 15 or more days each month over a three-month period, you may have chronic tension headaches. This type of headache can lead to stress and depression, which in turn can lead to more headaches. It often is caused by changes in brain chemicals. About four out of every 100 people in the United States get chronic tension headaches. Symptoms can start in childhood, but they are more likely to occur during middle age.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches. They can be triggered by things such as stress, depression, hunger, and muscle strain. Tension headaches may come on suddenly or slowly. Symptoms of tension headaches include constant pain or pressure on both sides of your head, and aching pain at your temples or the back of your head and neck.

This is different from migraine headaches, which usually cause throbbing pain and start on one side of your head. Pain from a tension headache is usually not severe and does not get in the way of your work or social life. But for some people, the pain is very bad or lasts a long time, and the headaches tend to come back, especially when you are under stress.

Changing weather stimulates headaches

Experts believe that people who get frequent headaches have a greater sensitivity to changes in the environment. They also have a lower threshold to the pain response, which may be an inherited sensitivity.

In a recent survey by the National Headache Foundation, three out of every four respondents said that weather triggered their headache pain. Specific weather triggers include changes in humidity and temperature, storms, and extremely dry or dusty conditions.

Many of these conditions cause or contribute to sinus headaches, as well as migraines.  Typical sinus headache symptoms include pain and pressure around the sinuses in the forehead, especially behind and between the eyes, and above the nose. These areas may be tender to the touch.

However, if headache pain is your only symptom, you probably don’t have a sinus headache. A sinus headache is usually accompanied by nasal stuffiness or discharge, cough and sore throat, and fatigue. Sinus conditions can be treated through pain medications, and by prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants.

Migraines — the mother of all headaches

Most people with migraines have common migraines. This type of migraine causes a throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain is moderate to severe and gets worse with normal physical activity. You also may have nausea and vomiting and may feel worse around light and sound. The headache lasts four to 72 hours if it is not treated.

Some people with classic migraines get an aura up to 30 minutes before they have a migraine. Symptoms of the aura include seeing wavy lines, flashing lights, or objects that look distorted. Other symptoms include tingling or a “pins-and-needles” feeling. Also, many women have migraines around their menstrual cycle. These occur a few days before, during, or right after their period. The symptoms are the same as those of common or classic migraines.

A variety of foods and beverages can trigger migraines. These include foods that are aged, such as cheeses, meats and wines. Also, processed foods often contain a variety of food additives such as nitrates and nitrites which dilate blood vessels. Additionally, while consumption of alcohol actually increases blood flow to your brain, the metabolic process for breaking down alcohol releases chemicals which contribute to headaches.

Solutions for dealing with a severe headache

Anyone suffering from regular or chronic headaches should see their physician. There are a variety of prescription medications available that can be taken at the first signs of onset, limiting duration and intensity. There also are steps you can take to help deal more effectively with headaches, or to prevent them from escalating. These include:

  • Seek a calm environment. At the first sign of a migraine or pressure headache, retreat from your usual activities, if possible.
  • Turn off the lights. Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound. Relax in a dark, quiet room. Sleep if you can.
  • Try temperature therapy. Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck. Ice packs have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain. Hot packs and heating pads can relax tense muscles; warm showers or baths may have a similar effect.
  • Use proper medications. Many medications contain elements that actually can make your headache worse. There are a variety of medicines that are effective for treating pain and headache symptoms, but always talk with your physician or pharmacist before self-medicating.
  • Massage painful areas. Apply gentle pressure to your scalp or temples. Alleviate muscle tension with a shoulder or neck massage.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine can relieve migraine pain in the early stages or enhance the pain-reducing effects of acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and aspirin. Be careful, however. Drinking too much caffeine too often can lead to withdrawal headaches later on.
  • Unwind at the end of the day. Listen to soothing music, soak in a warm bath or read a favorite book. But watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. Intense exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.
  • Sleep well. Migraines and pressure headaches may keep you from falling asleep or wake you up at night. Likewise, many headaches are often triggered by a poor night’s sleep. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, and if you nap, take short naps (under 30 minutes) that won’t interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. These chemicals also help alleviate anxiety and depression, which can make migraines worse. If your doctor agrees, choose any exercise you enjoy. Walking, swimming and cycling are often good choices. But it’s important to start slowly. Exercising too vigorously can trigger migraines.

Finally, doctors recommend keeping a headache diary, which may help you determine what triggers your headaches. Note when the pain or symptoms start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. Eventually you may be able to prevent migraines or other headaches by changing patterns in your daily life.

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