Headaches

Throbbing, tightness and pressure across the head are all symptoms of a headache. They're one of the most common nervous system complaints and three out of four of us will suffering with a headache at least once a year.

Most headaches aren't serious and get better on their own and can be eased with painkillers, although some types can be more severe and recurrent.

Causes

Tension type headaches (TTHs) - a band of tightness and pressure that spreads across the head - are the most common type and are experienced by 70 per cent of the population every month. Tension type headaches are believed to be caused by stress or musculoskeletal problems in the neck, poor posture, skipping meals and dehydration.

Migraines, a more severe but less common type of throbbing headache can be triggered by stress; anxiety; depression; a change of routine; too much, or too little sleep; caffeine; hunger; dehydration; alcohol; chocolate; cheese; bright and flashing lights; smoking; strong smells; and a change in temperature.

Cluster headaches which are much rarer, affecting an estimated 1 in 500 to 1,000 people, include brief but excruciating and frequently recurring pain attacks, often on one side of the head as well as in and around the eye. Their cause isn't fully understood.

Medication-overuse headaches (MOHs), also called 'rebound' or 'painkiller headaches', are caused by overuse of painkillers. You're at high risk of developing them if you take painkillers for headaches more than twice a week for more than three months. It's the length of time you take them that causes the problem - you don't need to exceed the recommended dose.

Symptoms

Tension type headaches headaches are the type most people suffer from and include a tight band sensation around your head, sometimes spreading from or into the neck.

For many migraine sufferers the main symptom is a throbbing headache, sometimes with nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and increased sensitivity to light, sounds and smells. Up to one in four migraine sufferers experience an ‘aura’ before a headache starts; the symptoms include seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines in front of your eyes, dizziness, speech problems and even collapse, but most people don't get this.

Cluster headache symptoms include brief but frequently recurring pain in the head or in or around the eye, often described as sharp, burning or piercing. The eye may tear up or redden, you may developed a blocked or runny nose and your eyelid may droop and you'll experience facial sweating.The attacks may occur several times a day.

Medication-overuse headaches are described as "persistent and oppressive" , occurring on more days than not and often worse on waking up.

Diagnosis

In most cases you don't need to see a doctor about your symptoms and can self treat with painkillers . However, if they are severe or recurrent and starting to impact on your daily life then do see a doctor. They will be able to diagnose your headache type by your symptoms.

There are certain 'red' flag symptoms your GP will look out for which may indicate serious underlying conditions. These include headaches that wake you up at night, headaches with memory problems or altered consciousness and those brought on by physical movement.

Who gets headaches?

Between 50 and 75 per cent of 18 to 65 year olds suffer a headache in a year and of those around 30 per cent suffer a migraine.

Migraine symptoms often start at puberty, people affected are often in the 35 to 45 age group and they are twice as common in women as men.

Cluster headaches are much more common in people who smoke and tend to run in families.

Treatments

Tension type headaches headaches can be treated with painkillers such as ibuprofen, aspirin or paracetamol. Your doctor can give you advice about identifying triggers and you can make lifestyle changes, such as not skipping meals, drinking regularly and changing your posture to prevent them.

Migraine treatments include over the counter painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen, drugs called triptans which work by widening blood vessels that are believed to narrow during a migraine attack and anti-sickness medication, including domperidone.

The herbal remedy Feverfew may also used as a preventative treatment for migraines, and there's evidence it may also reduce severity of symptoms. Other natural supplements including magnesium, vitamin B2 and co-enzyme Q10 may also help with migraines.

Cluster headaches need to be treated with sumatriptan injections or nasal spray, or by breathing in pure oxygen via a mask.

Medication-overuse headaches can be prevented by stopping taking the painkillers. Experts say this is best done abruptly.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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