Whether you regularly suffer from blinding migraines, or only get the occasional foggy head, we’ve all had a headache at some point. But learning how to interpret the pain can help you treat and beat your headaches.
Decoding your headache can not only show you how to prevent it happening again, it may even be a map to ailments elsewhere in your body.
Take our quiz, answering A, B or C, to pinpoint your headache type and knock pain on the head.
Q1. Where do you feel the pain of your headache?
a) On one side of my head
b) A tight band all the way around my head
c) Behind one eye or around my nose
Q2. What does the pain feel like?
a) Intense pounding or throbbing
b) A tight pressure
c) Sharp, stabbing pain
Q3. How long does the pain last?
a) It ranges from a few hours to a couple of days
b) Anything from a couple of hours up to a week
c) Only couple of minutes, but attacks last a few hours
Q4. Do you get any other symptoms?
a) I feel sick, am sensitive to light or smell, or see flashing lights
b) My neck, shoulders or jaw muscles feel really tight
c) A red, watery eye and/or a runny nose
Q5. What seems to get rid of them?
a) Heavy duty painkillers, such as codeine
b) Normal painkillers, like paracetamol or ibuprofen
c) Nothing at the moment! I’ve tried everything…
It sounds as though you suffer from migraine, which is actually a neurological condition. The World Health Organisation even calls migraine one of the top 20 causes of lifetime disability! Twice as many women as men are affected and it also runs in families, so genes seem to be a factor.
Migraines are triggered by electrical changes starting in the brain stem – the bit where nerve connections pass through the main part of the brain out into the body. This may cause blood vessels to constrict and then suddenly open up again, causing the throbbing pain. Talk to your GP about suitable painkillers to target your migraines. You can also find painkillers that contain an anti-emetic, which stops you feeling or being sick.
To help prevent migraine reoccurring, get to know your ‘triggers’. This could be too much caffeine, red wine or stress, skipping meals, dehydration, too much or too little sleep, certain foods such as cheese or chocolate, thunderstorms, or your hormones. Keeping a diary can help you spot your triggers.
This is most likely a tension headache, by far the most common type of headache. Tight muscles in your scalp, shoulders and neck can be a trigger, as can grinding your teeth or poor posture. Stress is a major trigger, so try to tackle your stress levels if you suffer from frequent headaches.
A simple painkiller will normally shift the pain, but try not to take them too often or you could end up suffering from medication misuse, or rebound, headaches. This is when your body goes into withdrawal as the painkiller wears off, causing more pain and prompting you to reach for yet another pill.
One of the best ways to beat tension headaches is exercise, as this releases endorphins – the body’s natural ‘painkillers’. Regular massage can also help release tight muscles in your back, neck and shoulders. Check your desk is set up properly too, so you’re not straining your muscles, and get your eyes tested; eyestrain is another cause of tension headache.
You may suffer from a rare type of headache, known as cluster headache. They affect around one in 1,000 people and the pain is so intense, they’re often called ‘suicide headaches’. The pain tends to come in clusters, hence the name, around the same time every day.
It’s thought the pain is triggered by a defect in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that also controls our ‘body clock’. The symptoms are often confused with migraine but unlike migraine, you could get up to eight attacks a day. Avoiding stress and other triggers like alcohol may help, but normal painkillers may not be enough to blitz pain during an attack.
Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss other options – some experts now recommend pure oxygen therapy. This involves breathing oxygen through a mask several times a day, which is proving to be successful at beating cluster headaches.
Found that interesting? Get more tips on managing your migraines with our advice guides.
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This article has been adapted from longer features appearing in Healthy, the Holland & Barrett magazine. Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.