It is thought that headaches affect tens of millions of American adults every year, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of known triggers for a headache, including stress, sensory overload, dehydration, and hypertension. Attacks can range in intensity from barely noticeable to absolutely excruciating and can come about once a year or once a day. Even though headaches feel like they’re emanating from the brain or skull itself, all of the pain signals driving a headache actually originate from outside the brain. We know this because the brain itself does not contain any of its own pain receptors!
Unfortunately, there is a lot of overlap between the various headache disorders, meaning it can be very difficult to distinguish one cause from another. Furthermore, we have no standard diagnostic test that can differentiate which type of primary or secondary headache disorder from which you are suffering. However, by working with a pain medicine specialist to discuss your family and personal medical history, you can arrive together at a likely cause for your recurrent headaches and get a treatment plan in place to find relief from these crippling attacks.
We have outlined below some of the most common types of headache disorders. If you recognize some of your own symptoms in the descriptions below, please reach out to us today to schedule an appointment with Dr. Iwan and get on the road to recovery!
1. Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of primary headache disorders. They occur in spurts of time, known as cluster periods, and generally present with pain immediately behind or directly surrounding the eyes. These so-called cluster periods can last for weeks or months on end and be followed by remission periods during which you will not experience any headaches. While these remission periods can last as long as a few years, they can close much quicker and push you right back into a cycle of pain and suffering. Treatment for cluster headaches is generally aimed at controlling symptoms and preventing cluster periods from snowballing into debilitating headache episodes.
2. Migraine with Aura (a.k.a. Classic Migraine)
Also known as a migraine with aura, a classic migraine is a chronic headache disorder that occurs immediately following an aura or sensory disturbance. Auras are auditory or visual disturbances that can include bright lights, “floaters,” moving blind spots, blurred vision, or paresthesia in the face, neck, and hands. The pain associated with a classic migraine is generally described as throbbing and located on one side of the face or the other. Fortunately, classic migraines are generally not “whole head” headaches. However, the defining feature of a migraine headache is the accompanying nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and smell that can leave the sufferer bedridden and immobile until the attack passes.
3. Migraine without Aura (a.k.a. Common Migraine)
Common migraines are direct analogs to classic migraines, save for the fact that they are not started with the audio or visual disturbances known as auras. This headache disorder is commonly known as migraine without aura and is the most prevalent form of migraine headache disorder affecting Americans today. The diagnosis and treatment pathways for common migraines are the same as classic migraines; truly the only difference between the two disorders is the absence or presence of auras.
4. Tension Headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache disorder. Tension headaches come on as a diffuse, dull, and aching pain across the whole of the forehead. They are often described as a tight band of pressure across the forehead, much like a headband that is too small. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of tension headaches, their precipitating factors are not very well understood and they can be triggered by anything from stress or anger to bad weather.
5. Medication Overuse Headache
Medication overuse or “rebound” headaches are an unfortunate side effect of managing chronic headaches. They are a direct result of the long-term use of headache medication, which can provide temporary relief from headaches, but if overused–think more than once or twice per week–can actually trigger crippling headaches of their own. Therefore, it is vital for individuals suffering from chronic headaches to work with their physicians to rotate therapies or use them sparingly so as to not overdo any one of their medications and trigger medication overuse headaches.
6. Hypertension Headaches
High blood pressure, which is caused by excess pressure being applied to the artery walls by blood as it moves through the cardiovascular system, can actually cause severe, debilitating headaches. If your blood pressure gets so high as to reach severe or life-threatening levels, it is very common to experience an intense headache. If you experience this sudden, violent headache, you should seek medical attention immediately, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure or feel lightheaded and are flushed in the face.