•The head is one of the most common sites of pain in the body.
•Headaches can be classified as being one of three types: 1) primary, 2) secondary, and 3) cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.
•Common primary headaches include tension, migraine, and cluster headaches.
•Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache and usually are treated with rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain.
•Secondary headaches are usually a symptom of an injury or an underlying illness.
•Patients should seek medical care for new onset headaches or if headaches are associated with fever, stiff neck, weakness or change in sensation on one side of the body, change in vision, vomiting or change in behavior.
What is a headache?
Headache is defined as a pain arising from the head or upper neck of the body. The pain originates from the tissues and structures that surround the skull or the brain because the brain itself has no nerves that give rise to the sensation of pain (pain fibers). The thin layer of tissue (periosteum) that surrounds bones, muscles that encase the skull, sinuses, eyes, and ears, as well as thin tissues that cover the surface of the brain and spinal cord (meninges), arteries, veins, and nerves, all can become inflamed or irritated and cause headache. The pain may be a dull ache, sharp, throbbing, constant, intermittent, mild, or intense.
How are headaches classified?
In 2005, the International Headache Society released its latest classification system for headache. Because so many people suffer from headaches and because treatment sometimes is difficult, it was hoped that the new classification system would help health care professionals make a specific diagnosis as to the type of headache and allow better and more effective options for treatment.
The society has a 2013 revised 3rd edition (beta) headache publication online but it has as of yet not been finalized.
There are three major categories of headache based upon the source of the pain:
2.secondary headaches; and
3.cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.
What are primary headaches?
Primary headaches include migraine, tension, and cluster headaches, as well as a variety of other less common types of headache.
•Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. Tension headaches occur more commonly among women than men. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 20 people in the developed world suffer with a daily tension headache.
•Migraine headaches are the second most common type of primary headache. Migraine headaches affect children as well as adults. Before puberty, boys and girls are affected equally by migraine headaches, but after puberty, more women than men are affected.
•Cluster headaches are a rare type of primary headache. It more commonly affects men in their late 20s though women and children can also suffer this type of headache.
•headaches can affect the quality of life. Some people have occasional headaches that resolve quickly while others are debilitating. While these headaches are not life-threatening, they may be associated with symptoms that can mimic strokes.
•Many patients equate severe headache with migraine, but the amount of pain does not determine the diagnosis of migraine. A more full discussion of migraine headaches can be found later in this article.
What are secondary headaches?
•Secondary headaches are those that are due to an underlying structural problem in the head or neck. This is a very broad group of medical conditions ranging from dental pain from infected teeth or pain from an infected sinus, to life-threatening conditions like bleeding in the brain or infections like encephalitis or meningitis.
•Traumatic headaches fall into this category including post-concussion headaches.
•This group of headaches also includes those headaches associated with substance abuse and excess use of medications used to treat headaches (rebound headaches).
What are cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches?
Neuralgia means nerve pain (neur=nerve + algia=pain). Cranial neuralgia describes inflammation of one of the 12 cranial nerves coming from the brain that control the muscles and carry sensory signals (such as pain) to and from the head and neck. Perhaps the most commonly recognized example is trigeminal neuralgia, which affects cranial nerve V (the trigeminal nerve), the sensory nerve that supplies the face and can cause intense facial pain when irritated or inflamed.
What causes tension headaches?
While tension headaches are the most frequently occurring type of headache, their cause is not known. The most likely cause is contraction of the muscles that cover the skull. When the muscles covering the skull are stressed, they may become inflamed, go into spasm, and cause pain. Common sites include the base of the skull where the trapezius muscles of the neck insert, the temples where muscles that move the jaw are and the forehead.
There is little research to confirm the exact cause of tension headaches. It is believed that tension headaches occur because of physical or emotional stress placed on the body. For example, these stressors can cause the muscles surrounding the skull to clench the teeth and go into spasm. Physical stressors include difficult and prolonged manual labor, or sitting at a desk or computer for long periods of time concentrating. Emotional stress also might cause tension headaches by causing the muscles surrounding the skull to contract.
What are the symptoms of tension headaches?
Common presentation of tension headaches includes the following:
•Pain that begins in the back of the head and upper neck and is described as a band-like tightness or pressure. It may spread to encircle the head.
•The most intense pressure may be felt at the temples or over the eyebrows where the temporalis and frontal muscles are located.
•The pain may vary in intensity but usually is not disabling, meaning that the sufferer may continue with daily activities. The pain usually is bilateral (affecting both sides of the head).
•The pain is not associated with an aura (see below), nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.
•The pain occurs sporadically (infrequently and without a pattern) but can occur frequently and even daily in some people.
•The pain allows most people to function normally, despite the headache.
How are tension headaches diagnosed?
The key to making the diagnosis of any headache is the history given by the patient. The health care professional will ask questions about the headache to try to help make the diagnosis. Those questions may include learning about the quality, quantity, and duration of the pain, and asking about any associated symptoms. The person with a tension headache will usually complain of pain that is mild-to-moderate, located on both sides of the head, described as a tightness that is not throbbing, and not made worse with activity. There usually are no associated symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or light sensitivity.
The physical examination, particularly the neurologic portion of the examination, is important in tension headaches because to make the diagnosis, it should be normal. However, there may be some tenderness of the scalp or neck muscles. If the health care professional finds an abnormality on neurologic exam, then the diagnosis of tension headache should be put on hold while the potential for other causes of headaches has been investigated.
How are tension headaches treated?
Tension headaches are painful, and patients may be upset that the diagnosis is "only" a tension headache. Even though it is not life-threatening, a tension headache can make daily activities more difficult to accomplish. Most people successfully treat themselves with over-the–counter (OTC) pain medications to control tension headaches. The following work well for most people:
•ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil),
•acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol) and
If these fail, other supportive treatments are available. Recurrent headaches should be a signal to seek medical help. Massage, biofeedback, and stress management can all be used as adjuncts to help with control of tension headaches.
It is important to remember that OTC medications, while safe, are medications and may have side effects and potential interactions with prescription medications. It always is wise to ask a health care professional or pharmacist if one has questions about OTC medications and their use. This is especially important with OTC pain medications, because they are used so frequently.
It is important to read the listing of ingredients in OTC pain medications. Often an OTC medication is a combination of ingredients, and the second or third listed ingredient may have the potential for drug interaction or contraindication based upon a patient's other medical issues For example:
•Some OTC medications include caffeine, which may trigger rapid heartbeats in some patients.
•In night time preparations, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may be added. This may cause sedation, and driving or using heavy machinery may not be appropriate when taking a sedative medication.
•Some OTC cold medications have pseudoephedrine mixed in with the pain medication. This drug can cause elevated blood pressure and palpitations.
Other examples where caution should be used include the following:
•Aspirin should not be used in children and teenagers because of the risk of Reye's Syndrome, a life threatening complication that may occur when a viral infection is present and aspirin is taken.
•Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are anti-inflmmatory medications that can be irritating to the stomach and may cause intestinal bleeding. They should be used with caution in patients who have peptic ulcer disease.
•Most anti-inflammatory medicines also cause the potential for bleeding elsewhere in the body and should not be taken by patients who also take blood thinners without discussing the risks and benefits with their health care professional. Blood thinners include warfarin (Coumadin), heparin (Lovenox), dabigatran (Pradaxa), apixaban (Eliquis), rivoroxaban (Xarelto), edoxaban (Savaysa), clopidogrel bisulfate (Plavix), ticagrelor (Brilinta), and prasugrel (Effient).
•Overuse of aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also may cause kidney damage.
•Acetaminophen, if used in amounts greater than recommended, can cause liver damage or failure. It also should be used with caution in patients who drink significant amounts of alcohol or who have liver disease because even lesser doses than are normally recommended may be dangerous.
•One cause of chronic tension headaches is overuse of medications for pain. When pain medications are used for a prolonged period of time, headaches may recur because the effects of the medication wear off. (This "rebound" headache is classified as a secondary headache.)
What causes cluster headaches?
Cluster headaches are so named because they tend to occur daily for periods of a week or more followed by long periods of time -- months to years -- with no headaches. They occur at the same time of day, often waking the patient in the middle of the night.
The cause of cluster headaches is uncertain but may be due to a sudden release of the chemicals histamine and serotonin in the brain. The hypothalamus, an area located at the base of the brain, is responsible for the body's biologic clock and may be the source for this type of headache. When brain scans are performed on patients who are in the midst of a cluster headache, abnormal activity has been found in the hypothalamus.
Cluster headaches also:
•tend to run in families and this suggests that there may be a role for genetics;
•may be triggered by changes in sleep patterns; and
•may be triggered by medications (for example, nitroglycerin, used for heart disease)
If an individual is in a susceptible period for cluster headache, cigarette smoking, alcohol, and some foods (for example, chocolate and foods high in nitrites like smoked meats) also are potential causes for headache.
What are the symptoms of cluster headaches?
Cluster headaches are headaches that come in groups (clusters) separated by pain-free periods of months or years. A patient may experience a headache on a daily basis for weeks or months and then be pain-free for years. This type of headache affects men more frequently. They often begin in adolescence but can extend into middle age.
•During the period in which the cluster headaches occur, pain typically occurs once or twice daily, but some patients may experience pain more than twice daily.
•Each episode of pain lasts from 30 to 90 minutes.
•Attacks tend to occur at about the same time every day and often awaken the patient at night from a sound sleep.
•The pain typically is excruciating and located around or behind one eye.
•Some patients describe the pain as feeling like a hot poker in the eye. The affected eye may become red, inflamed, and watery.
•The nose on the affected side may become congested and runny.
Unlike patients with migraine headaches, patients with cluster headaches tend to be restless. They often pace the floor, bang their heads against a wall, and patients can be driven to desperate measures including contemplating suicide.
How are cluster headaches diagnosed?
Initial treatment options may include one or more of the following:
•inhalation of high concentrations of oxygen (though this will not work if the headache is well established);
•injection of triptan medications, like, sumatriptan (Imitrex), zolmitriptan (Zomig), and rizatriptan (Maxalt) which are common migraine medications;
•injection of lidocaine, a local anesthetic, into the nostril;
•dihydroergotamine (DHE, Migranal), a medication that causes blood vessels to constrict; and
Prevention of the next cluster headache may include the following:
•calcium channel blockers, for example, verapamil (Calan, Verelan, Verelan PM, Isoptin, Covera-HS) and diltiazem (Cardizem, Dilacor, Tiazac);
•prednisone (Deltasone, Liquid Pred);
•lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid); and
•antiseizure medications including valproic acid, divalproex (Depakote, Depakote ER, Depakene, Depacon), and topiramate (Topamax).
The diagnosis of cluster headache is made by taking the patient's history. The description of the pain and its clock-like recurrence is usually enough to make the diagnosis.
If examined in the midst of an attack, the patient usually is in a painful crisis and may have the eye and nose watering as described previously. If the patient is seen when the pain is not present, the physical examination is normal and the diagnosis will depend upon the history.
How are cluster headaches treated?
Cluster headaches may be very difficult to treat, and it may take trial and error to find the specific treatment regimen that will work for each patient. Since the headache recurs daily, there are two treatment needs. The pain of the first episode needs to be controlled, and the headaches that follow need to be prevented.
Can cluster headaches be prevented?
Since cluster headache episodes may be spaced years apart, and since the first headache of a new cluster episode can't be predicted, daily medication may not be warranted.
Lifestyle changes may help minimize the risk of a cluster headache flare. Stopping smoking and minimizing alcohol may prevent future episodes of cluster headache.
What diseases cause secondary headaches?
Headache is a symptom associated with many illnesses. While head pain itself is the issue with primary headaches, secondary headaches are due to an underlying disease or injury that needs to be diagnosed and treated. Controlling the headache symptom will need to occur at the same time that diagnostic testing is performed to identify the underlying disease. Some of the causes of secondary headache may be potentially life-threatening and deadly. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential if damage is to be limited.
International Headache Society lists eight categories of secondary headache. A few examples in each category are noted (This is not a complete list.).
Head and neck trauma
•Injuries to the head may cause bleeding in the spaces between the meninges, the layers of tissue that surround the brain (subdural, epidural, and subarachnoid spaces) or within the brain tissue itself (intracerebral hemorrhage: intra=within + cerebral=brain, hemorrhage=bleeding).
•Edema or swelling within the brain, not associated with bleeding, may cause pain and a change in mental function.
•Concussions, where head injury occurs without bleeding. Headache is one of the hallmarks of post-concussion syndrome.
•Whiplash and neck injury also cause head pain.
Blood vessel problems in the head and neck
•Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
•Arteriovenous malformations (AVM) when they leak.
•Cerebral aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. An aneurysm, or a weakened area in a blood vessel wall, can expand and leak a small amount of blood causing what is called a sentinel headache. This may be a warning sign of a future catastrophic bleed into the brain.
•Carotid artery inflammation
•Temporal arteritis (inflammation of the temporal artery)
Non-blood vessel problems of the brain
•Brain tumors, either primary, originating in the brain, or metastatic from a cancer that began in another organ
•Idiopathic intracranial hypertension, historically called pseudotumor cerebri, where pressure within the spinal canal increases. The cause is unknown and while it can occur in all ages, it often affects young, obese females. Idiopathic intracranial hypertension can cause significant headache and if left untreated may, on occasion, lead to blindness.
Medications and drugs (including withdrawal from those drugs)
•Systemic infections (for example, pneumonia or influenza)
Changes in the body's environment
•High blood pressure (hypertension)
•Renal dialysis Continue Reading
Problems with the eyes, ears, nose throat, teeth, sinuses, and neck
How are secondary headaches diagnosed?
If there is time, the diagnosis of secondary headache begins with a complete patient history followed by a physical examination and laboratory and radiology tests as appropriate.
However, some patients present in crisis with a decreased level of consciousness or unstable vital signs due to the underlying cause of the headache. In these situations, the health care professional may decide to treat a specific cause without waiting for tests to confirm the diagnosis.
For example, a patient with headache, fever, stiff neck, and confusion may have meningitis. Since meningitis can be rapidly fatal, antibiotic therapy may be started before blood tests and a lumbar puncture are performed to confirm the diagnosis. It may be that another diagnosis ultimately is found, for example a brain tumor or subarachnoid hemorrhage, but the benefit of early antibiotics outweighs the risk of not giving them promptly.
What are the exams and tests for secondary headaches?
patient history and physical examination provide the initial direction for determining the cause of secondary headaches. Therefore, it is extremely important that a patient with new, severe headache seeks medical care and gives their health care professional an opportunity to assess their condition. Tests that may be useful in making the diagnosis of the underlying disease causing the headaches will depend upon the doctor's evaluation and what specific disease, illness, or injury is being considered as the cause of the headaches (the differential diagnosis). Common tests that are considered include the following:
•computerized tomography (CT scan) of the neck;
•magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the head; and
•lumbar puncture (spinal tap).
Specific tests will depend upon what potential issues the health care professional and patient want to address.
Blood tests provide helpful information in association with the history and physical examination in pursuing a diagnosis. For example, an infection or inflammation in the body may cause a rise in the white blood cell count, the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), or C-reactive protein (CRP). These two tests are very nonspecific; that is, they may be abnormal with any infection or inflammation, and abnormalities do not point to a specific diagnosis of the cause of the infection or inflammation. The ESR is often used to make the tentative diagnosis of temporal arteritis, a condition that affects an older patient, usually over the age of 65, who presents with a sharp, stabbing temporal headache, due to inflammation of the arteries on one side of the head.
Blood tests may be used to assess electrolyte imbalance, and a variety of other potential problems involving organs like the the liver, kidney, and thyroid.
Toxicology tests may be helpful if the patient is suspected of abusing alcohol, prescription, or other drugs of abuse.
Computerized tomography of the head
Computerized tomography (CT scan) is able to detect bleeding, swelling, and some tumors within the skull and brain. It also can show evidence of a previous stroke. With intravenous contrast injection, (angiogram) it may also be used to look at the arteries of the brain for aneurysms.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head
MRI is able to better look at the anatomy of the brain and meninges (the layers that cover the brain and the spinal cord). It is more precise than computerized tomography. This type of scan is not available at all hospitals. Moreover, it takes much longer to perform, requires the patient to cooperate by holding still, and requires that the patient have no metal in their body (for example, a heart pacemaker or metal foreign objects in the eye).
Cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, can be obtained with a needle that is inserted into the spine in the lower back. Examination of the fluid looks for infection (such as meningitis due to bacteria, virus, fungus, or tuberculosis) or blood from hemorrhage. In almost all cases, computerized tomography is done prior to lumbar puncture to make certain there is no bleeding, swelling, or tumor within the brain. Pressure within the space can be measured when the lumbar puncture needle is inserted. Elevated pressures may make the diagnosis of idiopathic intracranial hypertension in combination with the appropriate history and physical examination
When should I seek medical care for a headache?
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A patient should seek medical care if their headache is:
•The "worst headache of your life." This is the wording often used in textbooks as a cue for medical practitioners to consider the diagnosis of a subarachnoid hemorrhage due to a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. The amount of pain will often be taken in context with the appearance of the patient and other associated signs and symptoms. Too often, patients are prompted to use this expression by a health care professional and do not routinely volunteer the phrase.
•Different than their usual headaches
•Starts suddenly or is aggravated by exertion, coughing, bending over, or sexual activity
•Associated with persistent nausea and vomiting
•Associated with fever or stiff neck. A stiff neck may be due to meningitis or blood from a ruptured aneurysm. However, most patients who complain of a stiff neck have muscle spasm and inflammation as the cause.
•Associated with seizures
•Associated with recent head trauma or a fall
•Associated with changes in vision, speech, or behavior
•Associated with weakness or change in sensation on one side of their body that may be a sign of stroke.
•Not responding to treatment or is getting worse
•Requires more than the recommended dose of over-the-counter medications for pain
•Disabling and interfering with work and quality of life
How do you get rid of a headache? Are home remedies effective for headaches?
It is important to at least think that an unusual headache may need to be evaluated by a health care professional, but in most instances, primary tension headaches may be initially treated at home.
•First steps include maximizing rest and staying well hydrated.
•Recognizing and minimizing stressful situations may be of help, if that is one of the contributing causes of the headache.
•If there has been a cold or runny nose recently, humidifying air may be helpful in allowing sinuses to drain.
•Rubbing or massaging the temples or the muscles at the back of the neck may be soothing, as might warm compresses.
•Over-the-counter pain medication may be helpful, in moderation.
Those with migraine headaches often have a treatment plan that will allow treatment at home. Prescription medications are available to abort or stop the headache. Other medications are available to treat the nausea and vomiting. Most patients with migraine headaches get much relief after resting in a dark room and falling asleep.
Patients who have secondary headaches most often need to seek medical care.
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