25 December 2015 10:37:08

Help for headaches

Pretty much everyone gets them, and they’re often a pain in the neck as well as the temples. But how do you know what kind of headache you have, how do you know when to worry and how can you control them?

Pretty much everyone gets them, and they’re often a pain in the neck as well as the temples. But how do you know what kind of headache you have, how do you know when to worry and how can you control them?

Almost everyone has the odd tension-type headache – the most common form of headache that affects one in 20 people on any given day. It typically feels like a tight band around your head where a hat band would go, and lasts from half an hour to several days. You might be slightly sensitive to light or sound, but you shouldn’t feel sick with it. These days, doctors think it has much to do with muscle tension, which is why anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen can be so effective. If you’re suffering often, take a look at your lifestyle – stress, loud noises, irregular meals, not drinking enough fluids can all trigger tension-type headaches. A common culprit is our 21st century posture, slumped over a desk (or a computer) for long periods.

Migraines affect about one in 18 men and nearly one in five women. Much more severe than the average tension-type headache, they account for 25 million days lost from work or school in the UK every year. Your doctor will consider migraine as a diagnosis if you have headaches lasting for 4-72 hours, accompanied by feeling and/or being sick, and sensitivity to light and/or noise. 2 in 3 people get migraines on one side of the head, and it’s often a pulsing pain, severe enough to make it hard for you to keep going with everyday activities. About one in 10 sufferers gets an ‘aura’ for up to an hour before the headache starts, with flashing lights, blurred vision or odd sensations or weakness down one side of the body.

Foods like chocolate, cheese and red wine used to be thought of as triggers, but specialists now think it’s more likely that some ‘migraineurs’ crave these foods in the run-up to their migraine. However, caffeine (in coffee, tea, colas and chocolate) as well as stress, irregular meals, bright or flickering lights and tiredness can all trigger them. Some people like me are ‘weekend migraineurs’ – they’re fine when they’re under stress but get migraines when they relax at weekends and holidays.

Taking painkillers like aspirin, anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen etc) or ‘triptan’ tablets as soon as possible after the migraine starts can shorten it as well as relieving the pain. But some people have chronic migraine – defined as having headaches on at least half of days, of which at least half are migraines. If you have chronic migraine or your life is being severely affected by migraines, your doctor may consider a regular tablet to prevent them happening so often. If all else fails, Botox® injections can provide relief for some chronic migraine sufferers .

Bizarrely, in some people, taking pain medication can actually bring on a headache. Taking pain relief too often (at least every other day for paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen, or twice a week for combination painkillers or triptan migraine tablets for at least three months) puts you at risk of Medication-induced headache. Here, headaches are triggered by levels of pain relief dropping in your system – so you take more painkillers, setting up a vicious cycle. The solution is to stop painkillers completely, but as you can imagine, this can be tough in the short term – speak to your GP.

Finally, doctors talk about ‘red flags’ for headache – the vast majority of headaches aren’t down to a serious cause, but some symptoms need checking out. Seek medical help if you have a ‘thunderclap’ headache (like being hit on the head); have a headache that wakes you from sleep, is worse on lying down or is brought on by coughing or straining on the loo; get a new type of headache for the first time over 50; or have fever and/or rash.

With thanks to ‘My Weekly’ magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.