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Why Are Headaches Painful?

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What causes a headache?

Everyone suffers from occasional headaches once in a while. The pain in your head results from different signals fired between blood vessels, the brain and the nerves surrounding them.

When you experience head pain, specific nerves are activated which influence the muscles. Your brain receives pain signals as a result. However, the specific mechanism causing this is unknown.

What is actually in pain when you have a headache?

The concept of a headache is quite baffling. A headache is not really felt in the brain. Your brain is incapable of experiencing pain itself, but it can inform you about any discomfort felt in your body.

You mostly feel the painful sensation on one side of the head or both sides of the head. Sometimes, the sensation can extend to other parts especially if you have a stiff neck.

The headache pain you experience emerges from the muscles, nerves and blood vessels found in your neck and head regions. Due to tightening of the muscles or blood vessels, your stimulated nerves send a signal to the brain. It is your brain which interprets this signal as pain or discomfort.

The pain signal can emerge due to the following reasons:

  • Head injury
  • Sinus infection
  • High blood pressure
  • Possible brain tumor
  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Bad habits like smoking, excess alcohol or caffeine consumption.
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Vision problems
  • Motion sickness
  • Genetics – If an immediate family member has it.
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia – a condition which affects the trigeminal nerve found in the face.
  • Any other health condition or medical condition

Regardless of the source, you can get a mild or a severe headache. Some common headache symptoms include a throbbing sensation in the neck and head area, and nausea. 

Types of headache

Currently, the IHS (International Headache Society) has identified over 150 types of headaches. But you can segregate all the different types of headache into two major categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches.

Primary Headaches

This type of headache does not emerge from other health problems. It is a condition, not a symptom of something else. Some examples of primary headache include:

Secondary Headaches

This type of headache is usually a symptom of another health condition. Examples of secondary headaches include:

  • Hypertension (High blood pressure)
  • Infection
  • Trauma
  • Blood vessel disease in the brain
  • Injury to the head
  • Overuse of pain medicines (Medication overuse headaches)
  • Sinus Congestion

Every type of headache feels slightly different from the other. The common symptoms of a headache depending on the type.

  • Tension Headache – Mild to moderate discomfort with no throbbing sensation. Tension headaches tend to get worse while performing routine activities like climbing stairs. This type of headache usually responds well to OTC (Over-the-counter) medications.
  • Migraines – The second most common type of headache can be moderate to severe in pain. Migraine attacks are followed by vomiting, nausea and a throbbing or pounding sensation. They may even cause abdominal pain or an upset stomach in migraine sufferers.
  • Cluster Headache – This is the most severe form of primary headache. It feels like a stabbing sensation with a constant throbbing. During a cluster period, you can experience 1 to 8 episodes of cluster headache.
  • Sinus Headaches – As the name suggest, this type of headache is a result of sinus infection. It is so similar to migraine that even a health care provider might get confused. The symptoms may also include fever, mucus discharge and swelling in the face.
  • Headache from Medication Overuse – Also called rebound headaches, this headache is a result of taking too much counter pain reliever. The frequency of this type slowly increases, with the morning episodes being the worst.

Headache treatment

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An important aspect of treating headaches is identifying the triggers. If you can steer clear of the triggers, you are unlikely to experience a headache.

For instance, if your headaches are a result of emotional stress, you should find ways to cope with your condition. Work together with a health care provider and a therapist to reduce your stress levels. You may even have to make some lifestyle changes, like eating healthier and getting more sleep.

Remember, not every headache patient needs medication. By using relaxation techniques like breath exercises and meditation, you can keep your headaches under control. Even listening to your favorite music or watching a funny show can uplift your mood.

If DIY methods do not work for you, medications are available to treat headaches. But keep them as a last resort. For occasional tension-related headaches, over-the-counter medications work well. But do not take them too frequently as it can result in long-term headaches which will affect you daily.

For the sufferers of severe or frequent headaches, a trip to the doctor is advisable. Your doctor may prescribe you with a strong headache medicine like Triptans to combat your chronic condition.

Why do I have a headache everyday?

Currently, there is not enough evidence to support the cause of chronic headaches. Some people, unfortunately, continue to suffer from headaches on a daily basis. There could be many reasons for this.

It is important to visit a doctor if you get frequent headaches. The doctor may even recommend a CT scan to test for brain tumor, which can result in chronic headaches.

Apart from this, a traumatic injury to the head could also cause regular headaches. Infections like meningitis can also trigger frequent headaches. Sometimes after suffering from a stroke, your blood vessels can get inflamed. This too can result in chronic headaches.

Patients who consume a lot of pain medication also subject themselves to frequent headaches. The solution is to reduce the intake of such painkillers until stopping permanently. 

Continuous headache for days

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In some cases, a headache does not disappear for days. While this may not be a symptom of a life-threatening problem, it sure is uncomfortable and painful.

As mentioned earlier, you could be a sufferer of chronic headaches. In that case, seeking medical help is crucial to find relief. Meanwhile, you can also try relaxation techniques to improve your condition.

Your headache could also be symptom of another issue or problem. People suffering from a sinus condition also complain of frequent headaches. These headaches range from a constant pain in the head to the feeling of vomiting or nausea. If that is the case, you should treat the underlying condition to relieve the headache.

In extreme cases, a constant headache could be a symptom of a tumor inside the brain. Your doctor will be a better judge of that.

You could also experience pain in the head for days after suffering from an injury to the skull. In that case, wait for your head to heal, and the headache should disappear in time.

Sudden severe headache

A sudden severe pain in the head is referred to as NDPH (New Daily Persistent Headaches). This type of headache appears out of the blue with no prior history of suffering from frequent headaches. After appearing, NDPH can affect you for more than 3 months.

The pain of NDPH is persistent and constant. You can’t seem to catch a break. The pain extends to both sides of your head. Generally, NDPH does not respond to medications. This condition definitely requires a visit to the doctor.

When to worry about a headache

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Not all headaches are serious. However, under special circumstances you must seek medical assistance immediately. Watch out for these symptoms:

  • A severe headache which appeared suddenly, especially when you do not get frequent headaches.
  • Neurological side effects, like numbness, loss of balance, dizziness, weakness, confusion, paralysis, seizure or blurry vision.
  • Fever along with stiffness in the neck, shortness of breath or rash.
  • Severe vomiting or nausea
  • Experiencing a new and sudden headache if you are over the age of 55.
  • A sudden pain that wakes you up at night.
  • Drastic changes in personality and behavior.

Such symptoms mean you must visit a doctor as soon as possible. Do not jump to conclusions or make assumptions. Seek medical attention right away. 

FAQ relating to why are headaches painful

How do you cure a painful headache?

Some relaxation techniques are useful in curing tension headaches. You can try meditation and breathing exercises. If that does not work, you can try over-the-counter medications. However, do not overdo them as that will worsen your condition in the long term.

How long should a headache last?

A typical headache lasts about 30 minutes per episode. However, chronic headaches can last for hours and even days. In fact, people who suffer from chronic headaches can experience discomfort from 15 days to over 3 months. These headaches are divided into episodes of up to 4 hours.

What does a severe headache feel like?

A severe headache feels painful in the head and neck region. Sometimes, acute headache can affect both sides of the head with a throbbing, biting sensation. It may even make you nauseous.

What pressure point relieves a headache?

Some migraine sufferers experience relief from stimulating certain pressure points in the body. The Hegu point (called LI-4) is a pressure point placed on the back of your hand. Massaging this point may provide relief from headaches.

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