For those who experience headache pain, it is important to understand what you are feeling in order to identify the type of headache, treat the pain and make changes to avoid the development of a chronic condition. Halima Karim, MD, a neurologist with Dignity Health Woodland Clinic, shares more about headache disorders and provides insight on the most common type — migraines.
A headache is classified by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (part of the National Institutes of Health) as mild to severe pain on one or both sides of the head. Headache disorders are the most common form of pain in the body, often causing people to miss work, school or social events. The term “headache disorder” refers to a number of different types of headaches, which are classified as primary or secondary.
Primary headaches are not caused by another medical condition. The most common primary headaches are:
Migraine — an intense, throbbing pain in the head lasting between four to 72 hours that has occurred at least five times throughout one's life. Migraines are associated with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people may also experience seeing zigzagging light or loss of vision with a migraine.
Tension — also known as a “muscle contraction headache” or “stress headache,” tension headaches involve dull, bandlike pain around the head and can affect the forehead, back of the head or neck. Tension headaches may last from 30 minutes up to a week.
Cluster — severe pain on one side of the head and associated with symptoms occurring on the same side of the head including, a red or teary eye, runny or stuffy nostril, and sweating. This type of headache can return between 1-8 times per day and a cluster cycle can last for weeks, even months.
Secondary headaches result as symptoms of other health issues. Common underlying conditions that can result in secondary headaches include:
- Emotional conditions like stress, depression and anxiety
- Fever or infection
- Injury to the head or other body trauma
- High blood pressure
- Medication overuse
More About Migraines
The American Migraine Foundation estimates 144 million people worldwide suffer migraines for 15 days or more over the course of three months.
“Your vision and posture are important aspects to consider when creating a work environment that will not trigger migraines,” says Dr. Karim. “It’s best to create a work environment with soft lighting, and to take a break from the computer every 20 to 30 minutes.”
Migraines and Women
“Women are much more likely to experience migraines mainly because of hormonal fluctuations they experience throughout their lives,” says Dr. Karim. “Both ends of the reproductive cycle, puberty and menopause, as well as monthly hormonal changes that occur during a menstrual cycle are known to cause migraines in women."
According to the American Migraine Foundation, women may experience a migraine during their menstrual cycle, often due to low estrogen levels. On the other hand, women who suffer from migraines may experience a decrease in migraine frequency during pregnancy, due to a rise in estrogen levels. Migraines may become more frequent in the years leading up to menopause and decrease during and after menopause.
Triggers and Causes of Migraines Due to COVID-19
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of patients who are having migraines and other types of headaches,” says Dr. Karim. “Stress, anxiety and depression stemming from environmental, social and lifestyle changes during the pandemic have contributed to the increase.”
Dr. Karim suggests monitoring stress and anxiety closely. Not only are these feelings triggers for migraines on their own, but they can also lead to insomnia, another common cause of migraines. People who have been infected with COVID-19 are also at higher risk for experiencing migraines.
“A migraine is a common symptom of COVID-19,” says Dr. Karim. “In fact, headaches and migraines continue to be a primary symptom of post-COVID-19 for those known as long-haulers.”
Your doctor will determine the appropriate measures to take, whether that be preventive lifestyle changes, or a procedure like SPG block treatment, in which the group of nerve cells called Sphenopalatine Ganglion’s (SPG) linked to the main nerve involved in headaches is blocked by numbing medication.
Living a healthy lifestyle can help lower the risk of primary headache disorders, including migraines. This includes getting the right amount of sleep, eating healthy, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly.
“Know your migraines — migraine pain presents differently in each person, so avoiding one’s personal triggers by making healthier lifestyle choices is the first step in treating migraines,” says Dr. Karim.
For example, gluten and caffeine can be common migraine triggers. However, caffeine can also be helpful for relieving acute migraine pain. Other natural ways of treating a migraine include, exercise, avoiding stress, cognitive therapy, taking vitamins and supplements like magnesium and Riboflavin (B2), eating healthy, staying hydrated and getting enough rest.
“Over the counter medications can be used as temporary relief for migraines, however these should not be considered a treatment for migraine,” says Dr. Karim. “These medications are just a Band-Aid for pain, and if overused, will create more problems in future, including further headaches as result of medication overuse or damage to the stomach and intestine.”
Dr. Karim also notes that any over-the-counter medications should not be taken more than one to two days per week.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re fighting migraines or related symptoms frequently, there may be other medical issues to address. Contact your doctor if you are experiencing an increase in the frequency or intensity of headache occurrences or if the pain is accompanied by numbness, weakness, vertigo, fainting or cognitive issues.
“If headaches are prohibiting your daily activities, please talk to your doctor,” says Dr. Karim. “Your provider will know if you need professional treatment and can connect you with specialists to help provide relief if needed.”
When dealing with headache pain, remember:
- It’s important to understand the difference between a primary and secondary headache, which can help with treatment
- Simple lifestyle changes like taking breaks during the workday, exercising, getting ample rest and staying hydrated can help lessen the chance of primary headaches occuring
- Understanding headache triggers is the best preventative measure
- If you are facing consistent pain due to a headache or migraine, it may be time to call your doctor
If you do not have a primary care physician, visit our “Find a Doctor” page to learn more about Dignity Health Medical Group physicians near you.