Headaches: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
What is a Headache?
Headaches are a very common symptom of many different types of conditions and systems in the human body.There is a lot you can do to treat a headache without resorting to over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Alternative treatments are gaining popularity worldwide.Headaches are of course very common and can be divided into primary and secondary headaches.
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Headache Symptoms and Causes
Common primary headaches include migraine, tension-type, and cluster and because these headaches are not being caused by any underlying problem, neurological examinations and imaging tests are usually completely normal in these disorders, no matter how severe the symptoms. On the other hand secondary headaches are the ones that could mean a more serious health condition.
The key to distinguishing secondary headaches from primary headache lies in the features of the headache, other symptoms occurring at the same time, and the physical examination. Examining doctors look for warning signs that would point to a secondary headache over a primary headache.
Some of the Warning Signs of a Secondary Headache
- First or worst headache of your life
- Abrupt onset of headache without any warning or build-up
- Fundamental change in the pattern of recurrent headaches
- Headache beginning at unusual ages such as under 5 years or over 50 years
- The presence of conditions such as cancer, HIV or pregnancy
- These different secondary headaches mean you should seek medical help for advice and treatment.
This can be very serious, often reaching its peak intensity within one minute or less and once present, the headache can last from an hour up to days. Known as the thunderclap headache because it hits you with a blast of severe pain like a clap of thunder, you can feel pain anywhere on your head or neck. You may even feel it in your back. Thunderclap can be caused by bleeding from an artery into the space surrounding your brain. But there are other causes too:
- Small tears in the arteries of your head or neck
- A burst artery or aneurysm, which is a swollen, weak area in the artery
- Blocked veins in your head
- Leaking spinal fluid
- Rapid changes in blood pressure
- An infection in your brain
There are even some activities that can trigger a thunderclap headache:
- Hard, physical labor
- Taking certain drugs, including illegal ones
- Hitting warm or hot water too fast, such as when you first enter a shower or a bath.
- Seek prompt medical attention if you suffer from such a thunderclap headaches
Other Secondary Headaches
- External compression headaches (such as the result of wearing pressure-causing headgear).
- Ice cream headaches (commonly called brain freeze).
- Rebound headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication).
- Sinus headaches (caused by inflammation and congestion in the sinus cavities).
- Spinal headaches (caused by low levels of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of trauma, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia).
- Head injuries too can of course mean headaches. If such headaches continue, medical help is paramount because, left untreated, concussion can lead to long term damage to both physical and mental health.
Headaches that appear on waking up first thing - in spite of a good night’s sleep. If these continue, they could be a sign of something more serious and should be checked out.
Headaches that come on suddenly in a similar way to "thunderclap" headaches but often make you feel weak in the face, legs, or arms. If you find yourself feeling numb on one-half of your body, in addition to these other symptoms, it could be the first sign of a heart attack.
Headache Treatment and Cures
There is a lot you can do to treat a headache without resorting to over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Alternative treatments are gaining popularity worldwide. In addition, making some lifestyle changes as set out below will give headache relief:
- Shrug your shoulders – while in a sitting or standing position, make the effort to relax all the muscles in your body. Then take a deep breath in, contract your shoulder muscles, pulling your shoulders upwards toward your ears. Hold this for several seconds, at the same time letting your shoulders drop quickly. Repeat this process several times.
- Stress makes us take short shallow breaths but this raises the level of carbon dioxide in your body and dilates the blood vessels in your head which can even lead to headache pain. So if you are stressed, inhale slowly through the nose, count up to 5 before exhaling slowing and count to 5 again. If you can repeat this some 12 times, it will help with the headache.
- Try applying either heat or cold to the painful part of the head. Some people find heat more helpful than cold and vice versa. An ice pack should be wrapped in cloth first. A packet of frozen peas in a towel works well. Heat helps muscles to relax more quickly than cold does.
- Acupressure is when you use your fingertips to put pressure on your temples. Place your index and middle fingers of both your hands on the outside edges of your eyebrows and on your temples. Then rub your fingers in small circles with a fair amount of pressure for several seconds followed by pressing your fingers and holding for 4 to 5 seconds before releasing and repeating the process several times.
- Daily exercise is a good headache preventative while yoga is excellent for frequent tension headaches because relaxation and stress reduction are the primary goals of the practice of yoga. Another way to reduce stress and eliminate a headache is to take a brisk walk. Exercise is also a great way to improve the production of endorphins which are the brain's natural painkillers. Dealing with stress successfully and therefore avoiding headaches, often just means giving yourself some time just for you.
- If you can go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on weekends and during your vacation) this will help to avoid upsetting your sensitive nervous system. This is another way to avoid headaches as any change to that nervous system whether external or internal can be a factor in the onset of headaches. Too much, too little or disrupted sleep are common triggers of headaches.
- Many people are unaware that being dehydrated is a major trigger for headaches. So make sure you get your eight glasses of water every day. 75% of Americans are dehydrated so are at permanent risk of headaches and many other health problems.
What are Pressure Points
Pressure points are actually clusters of nerves found at various parts of the body that help regulate blood circulation and as some headaches and migraines are brought on by a tightness and stiffness in the neck and face muscles that can slow down blood circulation, the idea itself makes good sense. If you can apply pressure or even massage the pressure points, this can help relax tight muscles, increase blood circulation and ultimately relieve the headache. But first you have to find out where these pressure points are located...and there are quite a few of them. Some are even numbered:
Back of the Neck
Known as GB 20, this point lies in the depression which is at the base of your skull. Run your fingers from the center point of the back of your neck to past the first large muscle you can sense. Press slightly upwards and inwards until you feel a tender point. Then massage by moving your fingers in a circular motion. GB 21 is located on the gallbladder meridian, at the base of the neck and at the highest points of the shoulders on either side of the body. Apply gentle pressure to this point for about a minute to the place where it is most tender. As well as headaches, pressure can also be effective for dizziness and those chest-related problems such as asthma and coughing.
On the Hands
The point numbered LI 4 is located between the thumb and the index finger. Find the meaty part on the back of your hand and using your other thumb, squeeze the muscle by pressing down hard. If you massage the point in a circular motion, you can help reduce those headaches in the frontal portion. Boosting your immunity is another advantage of this massage technique.
On the Feet
LV 3 is located on top of the foot between the big toe and first toe and is also known as the calming point. Find a depression and massage over the point in small circular motions. Combine with the previous point (LI 4) to improve the blood circulation while helping reduce headaches and any shortness of breath.
On the Ankle
Go to the inside of your leg to that point just above the bone that sticks out in your ankle. Find the spot about four fingers width above the bone. Press the point on the back of the tibia bone. Apply pressure against the bone in the same direction as the toes. Not only will this pressure point relieve your headache, it is believed to make you less irritable. One word of warning is that pregnant women should not use the LI 4 and GB 21 pressure points as they may cause uterine contractions.
On the Temples
Another method is to find your temples (they are located on either side of your head about an inch behind your eyes) and place your thumbs there while simultaneously massaging them by gently rotating your thumbs for around 20 seconds to a minute, remembering to breathe steadily. Or using your index fingers, gently massage the inside ends of your eyebrows just above the bridge of your nose. Another suggestion is massaging the area right below and above the eyebrows till the point where they connect to the nose bridge also helps in reducing a headache. The massage should involve strong, circular motions for some 20 to 40 seconds at one go.
How to Apply Pressure
Acupressure for headaches can be slightly uncomfortable but should never be painful. Apply gentle, steady pressure to each pressure point but of course stop if you experience any pain. Work the pressure around the area to find the best location, being aware that pressure points vary from person to person. You might need to experiment to see what works for you with acupressure because some people are extremely sensitive while others feel nothing at all.
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Secondary headaches. American Headache Society Committee for Headache Education. http://www.achenet.org/resources/secondary_headaches/. (Accessed, Feb 13, 2021)
Wong ET, et al. Clinical presentation and diagnosis of brain tumors. http://www.uptodate.com/home. (Accessed, Feb 13, 2021).