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Headache Causes and Triggers

By Deborah Fields, BSc (Hons), PgDip, MCIPR

A headache, also known as cephalalgia, is a pain that occurs in the region of the head, scalp or neck. It is a disorder of the nervous system. Most people experience headaches during their life with them affecting people from around their teenage years until into their fifties the most.

They affect people from across the global population. About 47% of people are believed to have experienced a headache during the last year. They can reduce the quality of life for people who have them and lead to absences from work. Headaches can be classified in several ways.

Tension headache

The tension headache is the most common type of headache. More than 70% of some populations experience them and they are described as feeling like a band tightening around the head. Attacks usually start in teenage years. Three women for every two men experience tension headaches. In some people they can be episodic but for others they can be chronic (about 1 – 3% of people).

Symptoms can last between 30 minutes and a few hours but a tension headache also has the potential to last several days. It is caused by a constriction of muscles in the neck and scalp. Triggers can include stress and anxiety, depression, musculoskeletal, tiredness, dehydration, hunger, smells, squinting, noise and sunlight.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are usually felt as severe pain to one side of the head and focused around an eye. About 1 in 1000 people experience this type of headache and it is more common in men than women. For every six men that experiences a cluster headache, one woman experiences it.

People start to suffer from them while they are in their twenties or older. They can occur at the same time of day and often during the night. Symptoms can persist for up to an hour at high intensity although cluster headaches can be chronic for some people.

As well as pain, people can experience a red and watering eye, sweaty face, blocked nose and smaller pupil in the eye. The cause of these headaches is linked to the hypothalamus, an area of the brain related to some metabolic processes and the nervous system. Triggers can include alcohol, exercise, smells, paint and hot temperatures.

Migraine headaches

Migraines are suffered by about 1 in 7 people globally making the condition the third most common disease in the world. Chronic migraine affects about 2% of the global population. Children can experience it as well as adults, although it is usually first experienced in puberty.

The most common age range for people suffering it is between 35 and 45 years old. People tend to experience migraines as a throbbing pain at the front or the side of the head. There are usually warning signs, described as aura, to indicate a potential migraine. These include flashing lights or zigzag lines in the eyes, nausea, temporary loss of vision or tiredness.

Women tend to suffer more migraines than men. These headaches are moderate to severe in pain. They can be triggered by hormonal changes, emotional anxiety, physical factors, medicines and diet. A migraine starts from chemical reactions in the brain and is likely to have a genetic cause.

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches are the result of inflammation in sinuses. They usually feel like a throbbing pain to one side of the face by the eye, cheeks and forehead. This headache tends to be at its worst first thing in the morning after a build up of pressure and because of mucus in the nasal region. It can be triggered by, colds, flus, hayfever and sinusitis - congestion and inflammation in the sinuses.

Medication and painkiller headaches

These headaches are caused by using painkillers frequently - more than two or three times a week. The pain can result in chronic migraines which the patient suffers for at least half the month. This type of headache usually occurs when a person is using the painkillers to treat headaches so it is thought of as a secondary headache.

Patients can suffer from withdrawal symptoms from the medicines that can result in the prolonged headaches. Many common painkillers can cause this such as paracetamol or NSAID. These can affect up to 5% of the population in some countries.

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Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 6, 2016

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