HOW SERIOUS IS THIS HEADACHE PAIN?
Headaches. They’ve been described as throbbing, blinding, pounding, and vise-like. They can disrupt your life for hours, days or even weeks.
The World Health Organization estimates that almost half of all adults worldwide experience headache at least once a year. Headaches strike with varying degrees of severity, with the worst episodes causing painful, debilitating symptoms that impact the sufferer’s ability to function at home, work or leisure.
SPORADIC HEADACHE PAIN
Some headaches come and go, causing the affliction in occasional, sporadic episodes. Chief among these are tension headaches, which can be triggered by stress, fatigue, poor sleep, hunger or caffeine withdrawal. Episodes last from 30 minutes to several days. Most resolve on their own or can be managed with over-the-counter (OTC) medication (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen) along with rest and hydration.
Sinus headaches are directly caused by a sinus infection. As the pain spreads across the forehead and around the nose and cheeks (the area of the skull covering the sinuses), it can cause a throbbing headache. The pain usually disappears after a course of prescribed antibiotics clears the infection.
Strenuous exercise can sometimes trigger a headache. Be sure to hydrate before and after exercise. Taking an OTC pain reliever before exercise can help, but see your doctor if the condition persists.
Migraines are severe, debilitating headaches that can last from a few hours to a few days. Episodes can be so disruptive to your daily activities that you want nothing more than to lie down in a dark room and wait for it to pass.
The pain, which often centers on one side of the head, can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, or other visual disturbances. Many migraine sufferers can sense when an attack is imminent, seeing halos, sparkles, or flashing lights in their field of vision, or experiencing numbness or tingling up to several hours before the pain hits. After the headache subsides, migraine sufferers may experience fatigue, irritability, depression or difficulty concentrating.
If you catch a migraine early, OTC remedies can often help. But if your migraines are severe and recurrent, ask your doctor to prescribe a stronger alternative. Migraine medicines are available as tablets, nasal sprays, or injections for very severe cases, and usually offer partial or complete relief within an hour or two.
A rare condition known as temporal arteritis, an inflammation of the large temporal arteries located on either side of the head, can be mistaken for migraine. Thought to be caused by a faulty immune system response, the sufferer feels severe, pounding pain, usually at the temple on one side of the head. In severe cases, the inflammation can cause a blockage in the arteries, resulting in stroke or loss of vision. It usually occurs in people over 50 and is twice as common in women as in men.
Cluster headaches occur in a series, sometimes up to eight headaches a day over period of one to three months. The same pattern may return every year or so. They resemble migraines in that they strike one side of the head, occur suddenly, and are often accompanied by nausea and light sensitivity. What distinguishes a cluster headache, aside from the rapid cyclical pattern, is a drooping or watery eye on the painful side.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
In rare cases, a headache may indicate a serious medical condition, such as stroke, meningitis or encephalitis. Even if your headaches are mild or intermittent, see your doctor if a severe headache comes on suddenly or is accompanied by other symptoms, or if OTC medication isn’t helping.
Seek prompt medical attention or if you have any of these signs or symptoms:
- Sudden, severe headache that gets rapidly worse (thunderclap headache)
- Headache accompanied by fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, slurred speech, numbness, visual disturbances or pain in the eye or ear.
- Headache after a head injury, especially if the headache gets worse
“Cluster Headaches.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cluster-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20352080
Godman, Heidi. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/causes-of-headaches
“Headache: Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic.https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/headache/basics/causes/sym-20050800
Solan, Matthew. “Headaches: What to know, when to worry.” Chicago Health. https://chicagohealthonline.com/headaches-what-to-know-when-to-worry/
“Tension Headaches.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20353977
“What’s That Constant Headache Pain in the Temples?” Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/whats-that-constant-headache-pain-in-the-temples