It is estimated that between 40 and 50 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. Headaches are believed to be the result of an electrical and chemical imbalance at centers in the brain that regulate blood vessels around the head and neck. Headaches may be caused by a wide variety of factors including stress, reactions to certain foods, hormonal imbalances, genetic predisposition, fatigue, noise, and glare.
Tension headaches are the most common type and are typically caused by muscle contraction in the head and neck. Lasting between five and six hours, a tension headache is characterized by dull, steady pain that feels like a band tightening around your head. Vascular headaches, which include cluster and migraine headaches, are the result of overactive blood vessels. A migraine can last between 12 and 24 hours and is often accompanied by nausea and other symptoms. Cluster headaches, which typically affect men, are accompanied by throbbing pain around one red, watery eye, and nasal congestion. A sinus headache is characterized by congestion and steady pain behind your face that worsens if you bend forward.
A headache may involve pain in the head, visual impairment such as blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, hearing impairment, irritability, confusion, malaise, or a general feeling of discomfort. Tension-type headaches are often brought on by stress, overexertion, loud noise, and other external factors. The typical tension-type headache is described as a tightening around the head and neck, and an accompanying dull ache.
Types of Chronic Headaches
Chronic headaches may be caused by other chronic pain diagnoses, but the three most common types are migraines, muscle tension headaches and cluster headaches.
Migraines. The exact cause of migraine headaches are still under debate, but most researchers agree that they are neurological in nature. In addition to head pain, migraines are usually accompanied by other symptoms such as visual disturbances, nausea or a funny taste in the mouth.
Tension Headaches. Formerly believed to be caused by muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, tension headaches may actually be a result of the pain control center in the spine receiving too much input from muscles of the head. A tension headache often feels like a band of pressure around the head, and may be accompanied by pain in the neck and shoulders.
Cluster Headaches. Cluster headaches are a bit of a medical mystery. They may be caused by vascular changes in the brain, or by a series of activations in certain areas in the brain. Cluster headaches are distinct in that they occur in short bursts over time.
Treating Chronic Headaches With Medications
Depending on the type of headache, a number of different medications are effective in treating migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches. Some medications are prophylactic, meaning they are taken regularly to ward off a headache before it happens. Others are abortive medications, which are designed to control headache pain once it has begun.
Many chronic headache medications are available over-the-counter, however some require a doctor's prescription. Also, not all of them are taken orally: some chronic headache treatments are available in topical form, such as pain creams or patches.
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Migraines are intense throbbing headaches occurring on one or both sides of the head. The pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and aversion to light, sound, and movement. Migraines are often triggered by food items, such as red wine, chocolate, and aged cheeses. For women, a hormonal connection is likely, since headaches occur at specific points in the menstrual cycle, with use of oral contraceptives, or the use of hormone replacement therapy after menopause.
Cluster headaches cause excruciating pain. The severe, stabbing pain centers around one eye, and eye tearing and nasal congestion occur on the same side. The headache lasts from 15 minutes to 4 hours and may recur several times in a day. Heavy smokers are more likely to suffer cluster headaches, which are also associated with alcohol consumption.
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