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Headaches & Migraines

Headaches & Migraines

What are headaches?

Women scrunching her face in pain from a migraine, as she applies pressure to the temple of her head.

  • Headaches result from signals interacting between the brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves. At the onset, specific blood vessels and head muscles nerves are activated and send signals to the brain. Scientists are still unsure what causes this activation. 
  • The most common form is tension headaches. These chronic daily headaches cause mild to moderate pain and, in some cases, result from the under or over treatment of a previous headache.
  • Sinus headaches are associated with a deep and constant pain in the face, mainly the cheekbones, forehead or top of the nose. These usually occur with other sinus symptoms, including running nose, watery eyes and scratchy throat.
  • The least common and most severe type is cluster headaches. The pain is so intense that it often leaves sufferers unable to sit still. These typically occur one to three times a day during a cluster period, which may last two weeks to three months.

What are migraines?

These types of headaches are often classified as severe, intense, and often have accompanying symptoms in addition to head pain and pressure. Symptoms associated with a migraine headache include:

Feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking

  • Seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • Nausea
  • Pain behind one eye or ear
  • Pain in the temples
  • Seeing spots or flashing lights
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • Temporary vision loss
  • VomitingTingling or numbness in the face or hands

These type of headaches will typically affect only one side of the head, but can affect both sides of the head. Another key difference from a migraine and a traditional headache is that a migraine headache will cause intense pain that may prevent someone from performing normal tasks.

People exhibiting a migraine may also exhibit a migraine with aura (sensation a person experiences prior to a migraine). The sensation that can occur prior to a migraine can occur anywhere form 10-30 minutes prior to a migraine and can include the following:

Some individuals who suffer from migraines may exhibit what is called prodrome phase which is where symptoms prior to a migraine may occur a few days before the onset of the migraine. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • frequent yawning
  • Irritability
  • Neck stiffness
  • Unusual food cravings

What causes headaches?

  • There are many causes of headaches. Potential triggers include lack of sleep, missed meals, dehydration, stress, using a computer or watching television for an extended period of time, very loud music, smoking, strong odors, too much caffeine, and certain foods. While headaches may vary in severity and frequency, symptoms normally can be treated and managed.
  • Headaches can also be triggered by environmental factors, such as second-hand smoke, strong odors, pollution and allergens. Stress, lighting, weather changes, poor posture and increased physical activity are other factors that can trigger headaches as well.

How are headaches diagnosed?

  • Understanding your triggers can help you avoid and manage headaches. Keeping a “headache diary” can help you identify the types of headaches you suffer from and understand what causes them.
  • When you feel the pain coming on, write down notes about the time of day, what you ate in the past 24 hours, your sleeping habits, stress and any other relevant information. When the headache stops, be sure to include when and why. If your headaches persist, make an appointment with your doctor and bring along your headache diary.

Treatment of Headaches

For regular headaches there are many over the counter medications that can help relieve the pain associated with a headache such as:

  • acetaminophen
  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen

Medications are not the only solution to relieving pain. Given that many headaches are stress induced, it is important to relax and allow for the headache to gradually reduce and go away.

Treatment of Migraines

One of the best methods to treat a migraine is to remove those things that cause migraines. Some examples would be to make changes in diet if there are foods that are known to cause headaches such as alcohol or caffeine. Sometimes certain prescription medication can cause for pain and discomfort, if that is case consult with you medical provider about stopping this medication or possibly identifying alternative medications to help with you initial diagnosed problem.

If you are exhibiting a migraine with a pain intensity that is very severe and unbearable, please visit your local emergency department so that further follow-up may occur.

If you experience any of the following headache or migraine symptoms, seek immediate medical care:

  • Pain creates the “worst headache of your life”
  • Any problems with speech, vision, walking or loss of balance
  • Headache becomes more severe when lying down
  • Very sudden onset of pain


  • Nine out of ten Americans suffer from headaches.
  • An estimated 25 million days are lost from work or school every year because of migraines. (Steiner et al, Cephalalgia, 2003)
  • Ninety-five percent of headaches are primary headaches, such as tension, migraine, or cluster headaches.

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