Got a headache? No wonder. A recent survey by the National Headache Foundation showed that the tough financial times are hiking anxiety and wrecking sleep for many of us, triggering even more headache pain.
Sadly, we can’t do much about Wall Street. We can help with that headache, though—whether it’s a throbbing in your temples after skipping lunch, a pain behind your eyes from staring at your computer, or a dull ache the morning after you’ve had a little too much to drink.
Use our handy guides on the following pages to learn about the most common headache types—then talk to your doctor.
Who gets them The most common form of headache, tension-type headaches strike 100 million Americans a year. Some sufferers get them every day.
What happens in your head Stress makes muscles (neck, scalp, jaw) spasm, stimulating pain receptors in the brain. Some experts now believe changes in brain chemicals may be another culprit.
Where it hurts Top or both sides of the head
How it feels Steady, bandlike pressure around the head that doesn’t get worse with normal physical activity
Other symptoms May feel pain in the neck and shoulders or become sensitive to light or sound
Common triggers Lack of sleep, eyestrain, poor posture, irregular meals, stress, worry
Treatment OTC meds with acetaminophen (Tylenol, Excedrin) usually lessen pain. Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can zap pain and reduce inflammation. Overuse can cause rebound headaches, though, so see your doc if you’re popping pills more than two days a week.
Good to know Tension-type headaches typically last 30 minutes or even a few days.
Who gets them The number of sinus-headache sufferers is unclear, partly because a sinus headache is so often misdiagnosed. (It’s often a migraine.)
What happens in your head During a sinus infection, which is the primary cause of a sinus headache, the sinuses and nasal passages become inflamed, creating pain and pressure.
Where it hurts Cheekbones, forehead, or across the nose
How it feels Deep, constant pain
Other symptoms Fever, runny nose, stuffy ears, facial swelling, bad breath, cough
Common triggers Anyone can have a sinus infection and/or headache; people prone to colds and allergies seem to have them more often
Treatment See your doctor for antibiotics to fight the infection. Advil or another NSAID with ibuprofen can help relieve inflammation, but decongestants and allergy drugs may make sinus headaches worse (they can dry you out); talk to your doctor before taking any meds.
Good to know Greenish-yellow nasal discharge is an obvious symptom of a sinus infection.
Who gets them More men than women, with onset typically in the 20s to 40s. (Most frequent onset age for women: 60s.) May be underdiagnosed in African-American women.
What happens in your head Something may go awry in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that houses your biological clock. During attacks, the brain may stimulate responses in the nose and eyes.
Where it hurts One side of the head, often around one eye
How it feels Sudden sharp or burning pain that lasts 15 minutes to more than two hours
Other symptoms Stuffy nose, a watery eye, flushed face, restlessness; attacks can occur several times a day; cycles can last for weeks or months, or stop for years
Common triggers Smoking, alcohol, certain foods, bright lights, sleep problems, stress
Treatment Your doctor may prescribe oxygen treatments or a steroid such as prednisone to stop the attacks. Imitrex injections—fairly painless, compared with the actual headache—or triptan nasal sprays can speed relief. Verapamil, a blood pressure med, has been known to prevent cluster headaches, although doctors aren’t exactly sure how.
Good to know Cluster headaches are rare and not life-threatening. But any first-time sudden-onset headache requires a trip to the doc or ER.
Who gets them More women than men. Up to one-fourth of all chronic headaches are believed to be caused by taking too much pain medicine.
What happens in your head Overuse of painkillers may trick your brain into thinking you need them all the time; once the meds wear off (or lose their effectiveness), the headache comes back.
Where it hurts Varies
How it feels Constant ache, often starting early in the day
Other symptoms Nausea, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, depression
Common triggers Caffeine is used to treat headaches but can also prompt them (especially if you’re a heavy user and you suddenly skip or quit your morning Joe)
Treatment Retraining the brain takes time. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the types of drugs you’re taking, your doctor may want you to taper off your pain meds over several months. Always consult a doc before stopping any prescription drugs.
Good to know To be safe, experts recommend that you take painkillers no more than two days per week.
Who gets them About 29.5 million Americans. Women are three times more likely to suffer than men.
What happens in your head Long thought to be caused by abnormal blood vessels, but many experts now point to a central nervous system disorder.
Where it hurts On one side of the head, often around eye, temples, jaw, or neck
How it feels Intense throbbing or pounding that gets worse with physical activity; usually lasts 4 to 72 hours
Other symptoms May be preceded by an aura, weakness in arm or leg, or tingling in face; some sufferers experience nausea, vomiting, and light and/or sound sensitivity
Treatment Migraines are easier to treat if caught early. If yours are mild, try an OTC pain reliever with ibuprofen. For severe attacks, see a doctor to deterimine triggers and meds. Triptans (Imitrex, Maxalt) are often prescribed and usually relieve pain in two hours or less. They shouldn’t be used by people with current or past history of stroke or heart disease.
Good to know A recent study suggested that postmenopausal women who suffer migraines with aura are less likely to develop breast cancer.
This article was first published in Health magazine, May 2009.