A headache can be triggered by everything from a sleepless night to overdoing the alcohol, going too long without eating, poor posture, eating certain processed foods, and stress. “Certain foods may also trigger headaches, such as chocolate, cheese or coffee (caffeine),” says Dr. Hiten Patel, clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Furthermore, medical problems such as high blood pressure commonly can cause headaches,” he says.
The good news is that most of the time, headaches are not something to worry about. There are a few situations in which this may be the exception, however, so it's important to familiarize yourself with what’s generally normal and what isn’t.
When to worry
“If a headache is accompanied by numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, confusion, fever, vomiting, stiff neck, or difficulty speaking or understanding speech, these could be signs of something more serious,” says Dr. Alice Williams, an emergency medicine physician in Las Vegas, Nevada. These are situations where you should call your doctor or head into urgent care to get checked out.
Also, if you don’t get relief after taking medication for a few days or if your headache worsens, you may need to seek medical attention. “It is important to remember that not all headaches require urgent medical attention, but any time you experience unusual symptoms, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and contact your doctor right away,” says Williams.
“Headaches after a head injury should be evaluated to rule out brain bleed,” adds Dr. Dung Trinh, owner/founder of the Healthy Brain Clinic. Sudden severe headaches in a person who normally does not have headaches should also typically be addressed by a healthcare provider.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what to know about more common everyday headaches and how to deal with them.
The most common headaches
There are over 150 different types of headaches that doctors have identified, including migraines to tension headaches and beyond. Here are a few of the most common headaches.
Tension headaches: These, says Patel, are mild to moderate in pain and are generally not as debilitating as migraines. “Tension is often described as a tight band around the head, or aching near the muscles,” he adds. These lower-grade headaches can come and go, and are usually located on both sides of the head. “Tension headaches are typically caused by tightness in the neck, shoulders, or scalp muscles,” says Williams.
Migraine headaches: While not as common as tension headaches, these can be quite prevalent. Migraines, Patel explains, are intense, throbbing or pulsating, that usually occurs around one temple. Migraine sufferers often have such severe discomfort that they are unable to function and need rest. “Additional symptoms with migraines include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, and an aura,” he says. These headaches can sometimes last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
Cluster headaches: These headaches can come and go several times a day, and can reoccur anywhere from days to weeks. They usually occur on one side of the head and can be accompanied with symptoms like watery eyes and a runny nose. “These headaches cause severe, sharp eye pain. The episodes occur in sporadic attacks and last for a few minutes to hour, then resolve,” says Patel. He notes that these headaches can also be quite painful.
Sinus headaches: These types of headaches generally occur in the context of a viral infection (sometimes a sinus infection) resulting from the backup of secretions in the facial sinuses, says Patel. “Pain is located on the forehead or near the cheekbones, and is described as a facial pressure,” he says. Accompanying symptoms can include yellow or green nasal discharge, a fever, runny nose, and fullness in the ears.
Many headaches can be calmed with various remedies. “Initial things that can be done to relieve headaches include hydration and rest,” says Patel. Additional steps to take to potentially relieve your headache include:
- Taking medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. (Always ask your doctor first before taking any medication.)
- Working on reducing stress by activities like deep breathing, relaxation, and meditation.
- Identifying what your headache triggers are and avoiding them. For instance, if caffeine or wine gives you a headache, try cutting back and see if that makes a difference.
- Stretching, yoga, and practicing good posture can help headaches that may be in the neck or due to tension.
- Getting adequate sleep.
- For migraines, take some time to rest and avoid bright light, as well as food triggers.
The above content is shared for educational and informational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise or fitness program, taking any additional or discontinuing any existing medications, or acting on any content on this website, especially if you have a medical condition. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on our site.
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