How many times have you had one of those throbbing headaches and somebody says–”For Pete’s sake, it’s only a little headache. You’re just trying to get out of going to class. Take an aspirin.”
And how many times have you wanted to donate your headache to that less-than-sympathetic friend and see how he handles it?
Headaches are a common malady, but when you consider these facts, the “common” headache doesn’t seem like such a little thing. According to the New England Center for Headache:
* Ninety percent of all people in the United States get at least some kind of headache some of the time.
* Fifty percent to 75 percent of all teens report having at least one headache per month.
* Twenty percent of the population seeks medical help–80 million doctor’s office visits a year just for headache sufferers.
* People in the United States spend $500 million a year on over-the-counter headache remedies.
* The total bill for lost work time, health care, and medication comes to between $6 billion and $8 billion a year.
None of the world’s famous headache sufferers–Karl Marx, Lewis Carroll, Sigmund Freud, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Bernard Shaw–simply ignored their pain. Headache is a genuine disorder, and no one should feel guilty over complaining about the pain.
Not My Type
Headaches come in a number of different varieties, and the causes and treatments for each are different.
Headaches have been categorized into three types: tension, vascular, and organic. Knowing what kind of headache you have is important if you want to finmd the approach that works in relieving it.
Tension. Twenty-five million Americans endure frequent tension headaches (also called muscle contraction headaches), caused by the tightening of the muscles at the back of the neck and of the face and scalp. Anything that makes you tense can ignite it, even sitting round-shouldered at a desk for long periods of time. This most common type of headache comes in two varieties: acute, which comes on during or after a stressful time and lasts from two hours to several days; and chronic, which occurs from twice a week to every day.
A tension headache has tightening, pressing quality, as if you’re wearing an excruciating band around your head. Sufferers get relief from taking nonprescription medications like Tylenol or Advil. But frequent use of medications can actually causes headaches, because blood vessels become immune to them and don’t respond as quickly. Five over-the-counter pills a day is excessive, says Dr. Seymour Diamond, executive director of the National Headache Foundation, and can cause what is known as the rebound effect–you have to take more to get the same results. Catching a nap or just relaxing with either an ice pack or heat on the back of your neck often achieves the same results as an over-the-counter pain reliever.
Vascular. In a vascular headache, the blood vessels in the head swell, but the precise cause of this type of headache is unknown. What is known is that these two types of vascular headache–the cluster headache and the migraine headache–are extremely painful and frustrating for the sufferer.
For those who suffer from cluster headache a piercing or burning pain that bores into just one side of the head around or behind the eyes, often combined with nasal congestion and tearing from the eyes, are the symptoms. Ninety percent of all cluster headaches occur in men and happen most frequently in spring and fall. These headaches occur in groups, usually two to four a day at regular intervals. This may continue for weeks or even months, then disappears for months or years. The good news is that cluster headache is relatively uncommon.
The migraine headache, on the other hand, is a well-known ailment. The word migraine is derived from the Greek hemikrania or “half of the head” because the throbbinf pain is felt on one side only. A person who is about to have a classic migraine headache mayy first experience an aura, in which flickering points of light and/or jagged lines distort vision. In the case of the common migraine, there is no aura. In either case, when the pain begins, there is usually also nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine suffers, 70 percent of whom are women, may have one or more episodes a month or only a few a year.
There are two types of therapy for a migraine:
* Preventive, or abortive, medication is taken daily to reduce the likelihood that a headache will occur. The medication stabilizes the blood vessels so they can’t contract and expand so easily.
* Symptomatic, or prophylactic, medication is taken when an actual headache is beginning to prevent it from continuing. It works by shrinking the blood vessels in the head that dilate and cause the intense, pounding pain.
Organic. This serious headache is the one you’re least likely to have. An organic headache is caused when there is a problem with the sensitive structure of the head itself–for instance, a brain tumor or a blood clot. Less than 1 percent of all headaches are organic in origin; even genuine sinus headaches are rare. A headache related to a serious illness always follows other symptoms such as problems with vision or mental confusion. See your doctor if:
* your headaches are associated with disturbances of vision or speech, numbness, weakness, or partial loss of feeling or control in a limb
* you get a sudden, extremely painful headache, like nothing you’ve ever felt before
* you’ve had a head injury
* you also have fever, shortness of breath, severe vomiting, stiff neck, or memory loss and confusion
* you have frequent headaches that are interfering with your life or that have steadily increased in intensity, frequency, and the length of time they last.
What’s the Latest?
Scientists are continually researching the causes of headache pain:
* Researchers have discovered that serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain used to transmit information–such as pain.
* At least one new drug has been developed, Sumatriptan, which brings the level of serotonin back to normal in the brain, since low levels of serotonin are thought to be the root cause of migraine and cluster headaches. Sumatriptan will probably be available in the United Sates early next year.
* As a result of this increasing interest by scientists and researchers in clarifying the mechanisms that produce head pain, more doctors are coming to regard headache as a genuine biological disorder.
If you are experiencing frequent headaches that interfere with your life, see your physician.
If you have the occasional or even the frequent nagging ache, you can be your own best resource in keeping future headaches at bay. Here a few simple guidelines:
* Get plenty of aerobic exercise–30 minutes at least three times a week.
* Maintain a sensible diet. Don’t skip meals. Drink plenty of fluids. Experiment with which foods seem to bring on headache. Some common triggers include: cheese, processed meets containing nitrites (like hot dogs and bacon), chocolate, caffeine, and food containing preservatives.
* Stay on a good sleep schedule all week long. Don’t try to catch up on sleep on the weekends, because distrubances in sleep patterns cause serotonin levels to fluctuate too much. This makes blood vessels dilate and can spark headache pain.
* Try to keep stress under control. Find outlets for your feelings and don’t try to be Superperson. Take plenty of time for healthy activities that relax you.
* Watch your posture, especially while doing homework, reading, and watching TV.
* Avoid alcohol, smoking, and drugs–including over-the-counter diet pills. Be aware that other treatments, such as tetracycline (found in some acne medications), can cause headaches.
* Wear you glasses if they’ve been prescribed.
Don’t let a headache take you out of the action!