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Tackling headaches head-on: Common causes and when to seek care

Headaches are common among adults and are even chronic for some individuals. They can be annoying or a sign of serious health issues, and they can have a wide variety of causes.

Dr. Eric Miller, family physician, Beacon Medical Group WaNee

We’ve compiled some basics about headaches, with insights provided by Eric Miller, MD, a family medicine physician at Beacon Medical Group WaNee.

Headaches 101

“Headache” is actually a very general term that refers to any lasting pain felt in the head. The pain comes from inflammation in areas of the head and neck that are sensitive, such as nerves, muscles and blood vessels. There are many, many different types of headache.

The most important categories of headaches are primary and secondary. With a primary headache, the head pain is not a symptom of some other problem – it’s the main problem. With a secondary headache, there is some illness, condition or injury that’s causing a symptom of head pain. The vast majority of headaches are primary headaches.

Dr. Miller says that stress (tension) headaches are the most common. These feel like a band pressing around the head and neck. They can usually be treated effectively with over-the-counter medications. However, people who get these headaches frequently should be cautious of using these medications more than a couple days a week, as this can lead to medication overuse (or “rebound”) headaches.

The headaches that Dr. Miller sees most commonly are secondary, often stemming from sinusitis.

“The headache is not the primary problem, and it resolves after treating the primary problem,” he said.

Migraines

Among primary headaches that bring patients to Dr. Miller’s office, migraines are the most common.

“The classic migraine is one-sided and often preceded by an aura, such as seeing flashes of lights before the headache,” he explained. The symptoms usually last for hours and often cause nausea.

Migraine pain can be severe. Combined with the visual disturbances, nausea and other less common symptoms such as difficulty speaking, migraines can significantly interfere with daily activities.

Some people notice subtle signs a day or two before a migraine appears, such as food cravings, fluid retention or frequent yawning. Others are able to connect their migraine to specific triggers. Women tend to have more headaches around their menstrual cycle, and many people find that certain foods trigger their headache.

“A change in sleep patterns (either more or less sleep than normal), stress, weather changes and alcohol are all fairly common triggers,” Dr. Miller said.

If you suspect you may have migraines, it can be helpful to look for patterns. Dr. Miller suggests taking a few minutes after a headache to jot down food you’ve eaten, sleep patterns or time of the day or month. These can all help reveal patterns around your headaches.

When visiting your healthcare provider, consider bringing the following information with you:

  • How often your headaches occur
  • How long they last
  • Anything that helps alleviate the headache (like ibuprofen or Tylenol®)
  • Any related symptoms, such as light sensitivity or nausea/vomiting

The good news is that there are many different treatments available.

“Anyone that gets frequent headaches may have migraines and may benefit from migraine medications,” Dr. Miller said. “There are medications to help with the headaches when they come on, and many different medications to help prevent headaches if they’re frequent.”

When to seek immediate care

There are several situations when headache pain warrants an immediate trip to a medical provider:

  • You’ve had a recent head injury.
  • The pain is extremely severe — the worst headache you’ve ever had.
  • Your headache is accompanied by a high fever and neck pain.
  • Strange or unusual symptoms appear, such as a change in vision.
  • Your headache just won’t go away, lasting for days.

These can all be signs that your headache is secondary to an illness or injury that needs to be promptly evaluated and treated.

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No matter your need or age, our primary care doctors are here to treat your medical needs. If you’re looking for a new family doctor, Beacon Health System is here to serve you. Use our provider search tool to find a physician.