Headaches are incredibly common and usually unpleasant rather than serious. Occasionally though, they become so frequent or severe as to be debilitating, or in rare cases may be a sign of a more serious medical complaint.
- Dull ache.
- Throbbing that gets worse when you move.
- Sensitivity to light.
- Intense pain around the eyes
What causes headaches?
Tension headaches are the most common kind. They feel a bit like an elastic band has been stretched around your head. It’s not clear what causes them but they are often triggered by dehydration (often after drinking too much alcohol), lack of sleep, stress and skipping meals.
Migraines are often recurrent and debilitating. The pounding pain and photophobia (sensitivity to light) may mean you can do little more than lie in a darkened room. Migraines are probably caused by changes in chemical levels in the brain. A drop in the chemical serotonin makes the blood vessels in the brain contract suddenly possibly causing the symptoms aura (visual disturbances). When the blood vessels widen again this most likely causes the headache. Fluctuating hormones may also be linked to migraines which may explain why some women get an attack around the time of their period. Many people find their migraine is triggered by stress, tiredness, changes in temperature or by eating certain foods.
Cluster headaches often occur in clusters for a month or so. Their cause is uncertain although they seem to be linked to the release of chemicals that cause blood vessels to widen causing an increase in blood flow to the brain. Triggers can include alcohol and exercising in hot conditions.
Sometimes a headache is a side-effect of another cause - for example as a result of drinking too much, or due to an illness or allergic reaction. These types of headaches are called ‘secondary headaches’.
How to treat headaches:
- Over-the-counter painkillers containing paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen, are effective and should be taken as soon as you feel a headache coming on. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16.
- If painkillers are insufficient a pharmacist may recommend codeine or dihydrocodeine - these strong analgesics should not be taken for more than 3 days as they can cause addiction and make headaches worse if used long-term.
- If stronger treatments are needed ‘triptan medicines’ such as sumatriptan (available without prescription) may do the trick. These act on the blood vessels around the brain causing them to narrow reversing the widening that likely caused the headache.
- Sumatriptan is available as tablets, nasal sprays or as an injection.
- Drugs such as clonidine and methysergide may be needed to prevent recurring cluster headaches. These are only available on prescription.
- Consult your doctor if the headaches are frequent, sudden and severe (especially if you have knocked your head), if accompanied by a fever, fits, drowsiness, blurred vision, vomiting or you have a persistent headache that will not respond to painkillers.
- Often people worry that a headache could be a sign of a brain tumour. The condition is rare and most headaches do not indicate this.
Alternative remedies & self-help:
- Stress is a huge headache trigger so explore relaxation methods such as exercise and yoga. Establish a regular sleep pattern, drink plenty of water and avoid skipping meals.
- A headache relief stick applied across the forehead may ease a tension headache. The stick uses natural painkillers to relieve pain and relax muscles in the head.