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When Is a Headache More Than “Just a Headache”?
Headache is one of the most common symptoms we experience, with approximately 15% of Australians taking pain-relieving medication for a headache at any given point in time. There are various types of headache and many different causes, with some being more serious than others.
Triggers for headache include; stress, muscle tension, dental or jaw problems, infections of the brain or surrounding structures, diet, eye problems, hormonal influences, medications, disorders of the ear, nose or throat, disorders of the nervous system, injury to the head, neck or spine, high blood pressure, poor posture, alcohol or drug misuse, dehydration, loud noise, brain tumours and stroke.
So when should you worry about your headache? The features below should alert you to seek prompt medical attention :
– ‘Thunderclap headache’: a very severe headache with sudden onset that reaches its maximum severity immediately within seconds
– Positional headache: a headache that substantially changes in intensity when changing position such as when lying down
– Extreme pain
– Coughing, sneezing or straining causing the onset of a severe headache
– New recurrent headaches: especially over 50 years of age
– Change in pattern: compared to previous headaches
– Constant unabating headache: & always in the same location.
– In the context of other medical conditions: such as cancer or clotting disorders, or when associated with fever and a rash.
Reassuringly, the majority of headaches are harmless with Tension headache being the most common type of headache. Tension headache feels like a tight band of vice like pressure around the head. These are often associated with muscle tightness in the head, neck or jaw and can also be caused by physical or emotional stress. Often lifestyle adjustments to exercise, diet, stress management and attention to posture can help prevent recurring tension headaches.
Migraines are another common type of headache. Unlike tension headaches, migraines are typically one-sided and cause a throbbing or pulsating sensation. They can be associated with nausea and vomiting, as well as increased sensitivity to light, sound and even some types of smell. It is often made worse by activity. Migraine headaches can be very distressing and disabling, affecting one’s ability to continue usual daily activities. Fortunately various treatments and preventative options are available on prescription for migraine.
Whilst the majority of headaches are not sinister and may not require urgent medical attention, they can nonetheless have a significant impact on quality of life.
Any recurring headaches should be discussed with your doctor so as to rule out more serious underlying causes and formulate a treatment plan that minimises the impact these headaches have on your life.