Headaches come in many different varieties. There's the all-time classic tension headache (think vanilla), so common that just about anyone who's got a head has experienced one. Eyestrain, fatigue, and stress (mental or emotional) are all key ingredients in this flavour. These headaches are usually dull, with pressure around both sides of the head.
Next on the list is the sinus headache. It often comes on during or after nasal congestion or a runny nose. Pain is usually felt at the front of the head. It is commonly worse in cold, damp weather and in mornings; it lessens in afternoons.
Then there's the cluster headache, which, just as the name implies, typically occurs in "clusters" that can range from one to several headaches a day. Episodes usually last for 6 to 12 weeks. Unlike with tension headaches, stress isn't a triggering factor, and the pain is usually on one side of the head. For some unknown reason, cluster headaches affect more men than women.
Ice-pick headaches are fairly rare - but when they strike, watch out! Severe pain is localized to one small spot and comes without warning, like you've just been hit over the head with an ice pick. The medical name for ice-pick headache is chronic paroxysmal hemicrania. Attacks usually last less than an hour - generally 10 to 15 minutes.
Rebound headaches may develop as a result of medication overuse. If you are using headache medications more than twice a week, or not as recommended by your doctor, you could experience further headaches. This is because your body gets used to the medication, so when the headache medication wears off, your body may experience a withdrawal reaction. This can cause a cycle of getting a headache and taking more medication. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how to safely reduce the use of these medications while managing your headaches.
Finally, we have the migraine, which is no ordinary headache. Pain ranges from mild to severe and isn't necessarily the only symptom. Migraines can also trigger nausea and vomiting. In some people with migraines, visual disturbances called
"auras" (like seeing zigzag flashes and shimmering lights) may show up for about 10 to 30 minutes right before the migraine starts. A migraine "attack"
can last from 4 to 72 hours. The agony usually stops people in their tracks. It disrupts work and play activities, and many sufferers need to retreat and rest until the migraine is over.
Rarely, certain headaches can be a sign of a serious problem. For example, headaches that appear out of the blue with fever and a stiff neck could point to a brain infection called meningitis. Headaches plus weakness, trouble speaking, vision problems, dizziness, or coordination problems can be a warning of a stroke.
The take-home message: Headaches are a pain, but they often disappear on their own. But if your headaches are severe and long-lasting, see your doctor immediately - so you can put your mind at rest.