Definition & Overview

Contrary to popular belief, headaches do not immediately mean there’s something wrong with the brain. In fact, the brain and the bones of the skull are not capable of feeling any pain since they don’t have any nerve endings.

However, a person feels headache because of the nerves that are found near the brain and the skull. Their endings are the ones that are sensitive to pain signals. These nerves extend from the scalp to the neck and even to the lower parts of the body such as the face, ears, and mouth.

However, it’s possible for the problem to begin in the brain, especially if there’s trauma that affects the skull, the bone that shelters it. The brain floats in a fluid that serves as a cushion, but if the impact is strong, it can send ripples of pain messages from the brain’s surface such as the meninges to the blood vessels and then to the nerve endings on the neck, scalp, and other parts of the body.

Causes of Condition

There are two general classifications of headaches: primary and secondary. It is a primary headache when the source is anywhere in the head or near the brain, such as the neck, scalp, eyes, blood vessels, and muscles. When the source is something else, like a toothache, the headache is considered as secondary. This happens when a medical condition activates the nerve endings of the brain that are sensitive to pain signals.

Here are some of the most common types of headaches:

  • Tension: This is the most common type of headache. It is broad and ambiguous since it cannot be attributed to a specific cause. It is characterized by a feeling of tightness of the muscles at the back of the neck and scalp. It may be episodic or chronic.

  • Cluster: Cluster headaches affect only a particular side of the head, but normally it’s near the eyes. Although these headaches usually last for less than 20 minutes, they can be very painful or debilitating. They are also recurrent. Although there’s no particular cause, studies suggest this headache may be related to a problem in the hypothalamus. It is also prevalent among smokers and is often accompanied by nasal congestion.

  • Migraine: It is a recognized neurological disorder that is often recurrent. Each episode may last for as long as three days. It is often confused with either cluster or sinus, but aside from pain on one side of the head, the patient also develops sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting.

  • Sinus headache: This occurs when a person is diagnosed with sinusitis, a medical condition characterized by inflammation of the mucus lining of the paranasal sinuses due to a viral or bacterial infection, autoimmune disease, or allergic reaction.

  • Rebound: This type of headache develops due to the overuse of medications for headaches. This is more common among people who already have headache-inducing illnesses such as migraines or chronic tension headache.

  • Dental: Oral infection can sometimes cause headaches due to the many nerve endings in the teeth. TMJ (tempromandibular joint disorder) is a problem affecting the joint that connects the bone of the jaw to that of the bone within the ear area and is attached to the skull. Injury or problems such as the grinding and tightening of the jaw muscles can shoot up pain in the head.

  • Stress: Stress may also lead to headaches usually because of lack of sleep or tightening of the muscles in the shoulder, neck, and head area.

Headaches may also be a sign of:

  • Aneurysm: Aneurysm refers to the weak spot of the artery that serves as a pathway for blood toward the brain. It may rupture and lead to haemorrhage. Although this usually doesn’t have any symptom, some experience the worst headache of their lives.

  • Brain tumor: People with either benign or malignant tumor may experience headaches as the tumor grows and press itself onto the skull.

It’s also possible that the headache is caused by:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Congenital defect
  • Infections in the ears or eyes
  • Menopause (or hormonal changes)
  • Pollution
  • Food or diet

Key Symptoms

  • Pain in any side of the head, neck, scalp, or ears
  • Blurry vision
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Neck stiffness
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to sound and/or light

In more severe cases, headaches may be accompanied by:

  • Difficulty in walking, talking and performing other regular activities
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Seizure

Who to See and What Treatments Are Available

Patients who experience painful and recurrent headaches are advised to consult a general practitioner. To diagnose the root cause of the pain, the doctor will make a thorough diagnosis by assessing your medical and family history, lifestyle, activities prior to the headache, and medications taken. Typically, patients are prescribed medicines to relieve the pain. If the medication doesn’t work, the doctor will conduct a more thorough examination including an MRI or cranial scan that provides a clearer image of the sections of the head, including the brain.

Depending on the results, the doctor may refer you to a neurologist, who specializes in the nervous system, including headache disorders.

When it comes to treatments, most headaches are treated with pain relievers. These are over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin. The doctor may also suggest Advil or Tylenol.

For other specific headaches like migraines, skin patches or prescription medications like Zomig or Imitrex are recommended.

The doctor may also:

  • Put you on a diet plan to eliminate potential causes of headaches such as chocolates or hard liquor
  • Prescribe antidepressants or muscle feedback
  • Suggest psychological therapy if the headache is caused by anxiety or phobia
  • Recommend surgery if the headache is caused by swelling or tumor
  • Advise you to rest if the headache is caused by stress
  • Treat the root in case of secondary headache


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