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Pain Points: The Anatomy of Headaches and Migraines

June 6, 2018
Published in: General

Woman with her hands on the side of her face

Nearly everyone has experienced a headache in their lifetime. The problem may be caused by something as simple as staying up too late or being overly stressed. However, headaches may be signaling to you that something more serious is at hand. How does a headache happen in your body, what type of headaches do you have, and when do you need to contact your doctor?

3D illustration of an electrified brainThe anatomy of headaches

Even though it feels like it, a headache is not truly a pain in your brain. Most headaches happen in the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that cover a person's head and neck. Often, the tissues or blood vessels swell, tighten, or go through other changes that stimulate the surrounding nerves or put pressure on them. The nerves send a slew of pain messages to the brain, and this causes a headache.

How many people suffer from headaches?

Migraines and severe headaches are the fifth leading health complaint among people worldwide. In the United States, 15% of adults complain about headaches or migraines. A more recent study found that people who suffer from consistent head pains are not alone. A survey in 2017, found that 18% of respondents experienced headaches multiple times a month.

Types of headaches

Filmmaker at his computer, holding his head with a headacheBelieve it or not, there are four main types of headaches. Two of these are based on frequency while the other two are titled by their pain and symptoms. However, there are several different potential headache types besides these four.

  • Episodic headaches occur every now and again. They usually last between 30 minutes to several hours.
  • Chronic headaches happen on a more consistent basis. They occur on most days and last for multiple days at a time.
  • A tension headache is the most common type of headache. They are caused by neck muscle contractions or the muscles squeezing too hard. Often, this may feel like something is pressing or squeezing on the front, back, or both sides of your head.
  • A migraine is intense pulsing from deep within your head. This pain can last for days and limits your daily activities. Migraine symptoms include throbbing and usually begin on one side of the head. Light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting are common reactions to migraines.migraines, as well as nausea and vomiting.

What causes headaches?

There are factors that can cause headaches, most which are common in everyday life. However, headaches may also be linked to infections or even more severe health issues.

General causes:

  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Looking too much at a screen like a computer, tv, or phone
  • Loud music
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Skipping meals
  • Lack of sleep
  • A bump to the head
  • Taking a long car ride
  • Hormonal changes in teens

Infections that may cause headaches:

  • Flu
  • Sinus infection
  • Strep throat
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Ear infection
  • Lyme disease

What should I do about my headaches?

Occasional episodic headaches are usually self-treatable and go away within 48 hours. Unless the headaches are caused by an infection, the pains typically go away once you get some rest. If the pain is hard to tolerate or won't go away, you should consider getting an over-the-counter medication to help relieve the pain.

When should you call your doctor?

If you have a headache that lasts more than two days or increases in intensity, you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor. It is also critical to see your doctor if your headache occurs after an injury, over-the-counter medicines are not working, or if you think it's a migraine. Headaches occurring more than three times a month may also be a red flag. Your doctor will be able to prescribe medication and recommend changes in your diet to help control your headaches and pain. Headaches can also be a symptom of a more severe health issue, and some require specialized medications or treatments.

Overall, headaches can occur because of something as simple as staying in the sun too long or as severe as an underlying disease. There are several types of headaches, most being treatable from home. However, headaches may occur frequently, or you may experience migraines. If headaches happen multiple times a month or the intensity affects your daily routine, it's time to call your doctor.