By Antonia Kanczula
When it comes to everyday health niggles, headaches are extremely common, with more than 10 million of us in the UK regularly affected. Women are even more susceptible because of our hormones. But despite being so routine for many people, there can be big differences between the causes and treatments for a specific pain.
What type of headache do you have?
‘Headache’ is the umbrella term for myriad forms of head pain – and identifying your type is the first step to finding a cause and treatment. The most common are tension headaches, which are irritating more than debilitating. They’re normally brought on by lifestyle factors like stress, sleep deprivation, dehydration or skipping a meal.
Other main types include cluster headaches, which are characterised by bouts of pain in one side of the head, and migraines, when throbbing pain is accompanied by symptoms like nausea or vomiting, and aura – such as seeing flashing lights or blind spots.
"There’s a genetic factor to migraines and hormones contribute too," says Dr Judith Pearson, Specialist Doctor at the National Migraine Centre. “Migraines are much more common in women than men. Some women also experience hormonal headaches, often triggered by sensitivity to the natural fall in oestrogen levels around the time of menstruation.
“After the menopause, once hormonal levels have evened out, you may find headaches become less frequent or severe. However, this is not always the case, and menopause can be a difficult time.”
Help for headaches
Regular painkillers like paracetamol and easy lifestyle tweaks are enormously effective for mild headaches.
“Routine can be key," says Dr Pearson. "Stay well-hydrated and eat regularly: don't worry about the specific things you’re eating, just ensure you eat enough as low blood sugar is a trigger. Try stick to a similar bedtime and morning routine seven days a week. Stress reduction techniques can also be useful, try warm compresses or soothing aromatherapy self-massage on your temples for relief."
Check for underlying health causes. Eye strain or dental problems could be manifest as headaches so make sure you’re up-to-date with optician and dentist appointments.
“Flare-ups of other illnesses can also trigger migraine attacks,” says Dr Pearson. “Smokers have more frequent and more severe attacks, so giving up cigarettes can help. Neck pain can also be a symptom and a trigger for attacks, so try exercises to sort out your muscle strain. If you experience aura with your migraines, you may be at higher risk of stroke so have your blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar levels checked, and treated if appropriate.”
Getting frequent headaches but can’t pinpoint the cause? Log dates, times, symptoms, medication and your daily routine – then play detective.
“A diary can help spot patterns that may be acting as triggers and highlight if you’re taking medication too often," says Dr Pearson. "If you take painkilling medication more often than 10 to 12 days per month you risk causing even more frequent headaches, known as medication-overuse headaches."
If a headache comes on quickly and is particularly severe, doesn’t go away or gets worse, or if ongoing headaches are impacting on your life, see your GP. Much can be offered in terms of prescription-only medication for the treatment of acute attacks and your doctor can also advise on further lifestyle changes.
Find out more about the National Migraine Centre here
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