Headaches - causes and cures

While most headaches aren't serious, they can rarely be a sign of something more serious. So how do we tell the difference?

Headaches are so common that it's hard to find anyone who's never had one. In fact:

  • 96% of people have had a headache
  • Four out of five people have suffered from 'tension-type' headaches
  • One in seven gets migraines
  • Headache is one of the commonest reasons for seeing the GP.

Obviously, we can't rush to the doctor every time we get a headache. But while most headaches aren't serious, they can rarely be a sign of something more serious. Fortunately it really is rare - even among people referred to hospital for headache, over 99% turn out not to have a sinister cause. So how do we tell the difference? And what can we do about everyday headaches?

Tension-type headaches

These are the commonest type of headache by far. They tend to get worse towards the end of the day; feel like a tight 'band' around your head; and rarely cause other symptoms like changes in your eyesight. They often spread down your neck, and usually last for a few hours. In between the headaches you'll feel completely well. They can be brought on by all sorts of tension - either physical tension (such as pressure on your neck muscles from sitting in an uncomfortable position) or stress or anxiety. Sometimes they can be triggered by some foods.

Proven ways of helping with tension headaches include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Keeping a diary of what you're doing and what you eat and drink. Tension headaches can be brought on by cold, heat, some foods, tiredness or noise
  • Taking simple painkillers (but avoid codeine-based painkillers if you're taking them regularly - see below)

Painkiller-induced headaches

Bizarrely, if you take painkillers too often, they can actually trigger more frequent headaches. Codeine-based painkillers do this more often than paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory tablets like ibuprofen. To avoid this sort of headache:

  • Don't take painkillers for more than a few days in a row
  • Never take painkillers for headache on more than 15 days in amonth
  • Avoid combination painkillers containing codeine, such as co-codamol or co-dydramol

Migraine

Migraines rarely start for the first time over the age of 50. They usually affect one side of your head; you'll often feel (or be) sick; and may start with a period of disturbed eyesight (zigzag lines or flashing lights).

Temporal arteritis

Temporal arteritis is caused by inflammation in the arteries in your temples . It's important to get it treated because it can cause irreversible damage to your eyesight. Clues include:

  • A different kind of headache to previous ones, starting over the age of 50
  • Pain brought on by chewing
  • Pain in one or both temples

If you suspect you may have temporal arteritis, see your GP urgently.

Headache - when you need to get it checked out fast!

Although they're extremely rare, there are some potentially dangerous conditions which cause headaches. They include:

  • Bleeding into the brain
  • Meningitis
  • Raised pressure inside the brain
  • Temporal arteritis

The thing these headaches tend to have in common is that they are 'first and worst' - in other words, the worst headache you've ever had, and the first time you've had this sort of headache. People sometimes describe the pain of a bleed into the brain as 'being hit by a bolt of lightning'. Other warning signs to look out for include:

  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Neck stiffness
  • Pain which gets worse when you lie down
  • Pain which wakes you from sleep
  • Confusion
  • Problems with speech, vision, weakness in one part of your body
  • No relief (even temporarily) with any painkillers

If you get any of these, you should seek medical help as soon as possible.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.