Headaches are very common. Most headaches do not have a serious cause and will go away over time.

Symptoms of a headache

People describe headaches in various ways.

A headache can be:

  • throbbing
  • sharp
  • dull
  • piercing.

A headache can be in one small area or spread around your whole head.

When to get immediate medical advice

  • This is the most common type of headache.

    It may feel like a tight band around your head, a dull ache on both sides of your head, or a heavy weight on top of your head. You may also notice muscle tightness in your neck and shoulders .

    Tension headache can last for a few hours to days and they tend to develop later in the day.

    They are usually brought on by lifestyle issues such as not getting enough sleep, poor posture and stress.

  • Migraines are a distinctive type of headache. They can feel more severe than headaches.

    A typical migraine causes a severe throbbing pain on one side of the head. Sometimes it can cover both sides of the head and is a dull pain. The pain builds up during an attack and can last for several hours.

    Often people with migraines are sensitive to light and they may feel nauseous or vomit. Some people have an aura, which is a sensation that occurs before the headache symptom. An aura may occur as a series of flashing lights or zigzags over your vision, blurring or even loss of vision. Migraines can last several days and if bad, can be very disabling.

    Although causes are not fully understood, some people find certain things trigger a migraine attack. These include:

    • stress
    • lack of sleep
    • skipping a meal
    • alcohol, particularly red wine
    • taking birth control pills
    • changes in the weather
    • chocolate
    • food preservatives or additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG)
    • caffeine.
  • Cluster headaches often occur at night and usually cause sudden pain on one side of your head — often around the eye.

    Cluster headaches may happen several times a day for 4 to 12 weeks, then disappear for months or years.

    Some people find certain things can trigger cluster headaches. These include:

    • alcohol
    • smoking
    • stress
    • bright or glaring lights
    • certain foods
    • lack of sleep.
  • Sinus headaches is caused by the pressure from the swelling inside your sinuses (the mucous membranes of your nose).

    If you have a sinus headache, the pain will be in your face and forehead – and sometimes behind or between your eyes. It can also be:

    • dull or severe
    • worse in the morning and improved by the afternoon
    • worse when you bend your head forward
    • worse on cool, damp days.

Causes of a headache

The cause of headache will usually depend on the type of headache and can include:

  • stress
  • poor sleep
  • muscle tension
  • an infection
  • the toxic effects of alcohol or other substances
  • eyestrain.

Self care for headaches

If you know what causes your headaches (for example, alcohol, chocolate, cheese) it is best to avoid these things if you can.

If you get a headache, try the following:

  • drink enough fluid — especially water
  • do not skip or delay meals (unless you are vomitting)
  • lie down in a dark, quiet room (and if possible, sleep)
  • alternate warm and cool compresses (for 20 minutes each) on your forehead, the base of your skull or your upper neck
  • take regular screen breaks.

Treating headaches

Common medications for headaches are paracetamol and anti-inflammatories. But if you use these more than 3 or 4 times a week for a few weeks, they can cause a type of headache called a medication over-use headache.

A group of medications called triptans may be used to treat migraines. These can stop a migraine if you take them very early, when the aura starts.

If your headaches or migraines are happening often, your healthcare provider might talk to you about going onto a daily preventative medication. It can sometimes take a while to find a medication that works for you.

You may choose to see a physiotherapist skilled in assessing and treating headaches and migraines. They can check for causes such as neck issues and provide treatment.

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