Im hunched over my computer, feeling tense because of a huge impending work deadline. As I click away at my keyboard, I occasionally stop to stretch or refuel with a java fix. At days end with a flourish of satisfaction, I email the file to my editor. But two hours later, while reading the morning newspaper, I feel a familiar dull pain behind my forehead. My reward for a hard mornings work: A killer headache.
Misery in this case, does not love company, yet I have plenty of it. More than 45 million Americans get chronic, recurring headaches according to the National Headache Foundation (NHF). Treatments for headaches simply defined as pain ranging from mild to throbbing to excruciating agony above the eyes or ears, back and bottom of the skull, or in the back of the upper neck run the gamut from over-the-counter and prescription medication to acupuncture, biofeedback, dietary restrictions and natural herbs.
But before you can treat or prevent a headache from hitting, its crucial to zero in on its trigger. To do this you need to identify the kind of headache you have. Ninety-eight percent of all headaches fall into one of three types: tension, migraines and cluster, according to Mark Green, MD, director of headache medicine at Columbia University and co-author of Managing Your Headaches.
If you feel a dull ache or pressure (as if you were wearing an ever-tightening headband) and it lasts form 30 minutes to several hours, occurs on both sides of your head, and comes on following a stress-driven day, a fitful nights sleep or hours on the computer, theres a good chance you have a tension headache, sometimes referred to as a stress headache. Green says 78 percent of adults have them at some point in their lives and that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from chronic tension headaches.
Most OTC medications, like acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, will numb the pain for a few hours. But, Green adds These medications should be limited to no more than a few days per week, because if over-used they can cause rebound headaches pain that commonly bounces back once the medication leaves your system.
The second most common kind of headache, and the most painful, is a migraine. The NHF estimates that 20 percent of the time, sensory warning signs (or auras) including extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and odors - precede a migraine. Nausea or vomiting may also accompany a migraine, as well as facial pallor and cold hands or feet. Theres usually moderate to severe pain with attending pulsating or throbbing, which can affect one or both sides of the head and linger for hours, even days. Up to 17 percent of women and six percent of men have experienced a migraine, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Migraine triggers are still being researched. Its believed that they are frequently brought on by fluctuations in estrogen typical in both PMS and menopause. Another likely suspect is diet: sulfites in red wine, aged cheese, fermented or pickled or marinated foods, caffeine, yeast in beer, chocolate, and food additives like MSG, are common.
Keep a food diary to see if your diet is responsible for your migraines and then cut back or avoid those foods.
Speak to your doctor about taking a new class of pharmaceuticals called triptans. These prescription drugs which include Maxalt and Imitrex,fight migraines by blocking the transmission of pain signals from the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sending sensations from the face to the brain. Researchers believe this causes the trigeminal nerve to release substances called neuropeptides, which then travel to your brains outer covering (meninges). Once there, they cause blood vessels to become dilated, inflamed and painful.
In addition, a recent study conducted by osteopath Frederick Freitag, DO, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, shows that injections of the anti-wrinkle neurotoxin Botox into the muscles surrounding the skull may help chronic sufferers reduce their frequency of attacks by up to 33 percent.
Less common than migraines, but just as painful, are cluster headaches. Howard Derman, MD, director of the headache clinic at the Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, reports that most of the time its men over the age of 30 who are hit with clusters. The most common symptoms are a searing pain over one eye, a runny nose and tearing eye, and throbbing on one side of the head.
Dr. Derman recommends the prescription medication prednisone, a synthetic steroid in the cortisone family that reduces the inflammation of blood vessels in the brain.
Breathing pure oxygen a therapy available at headache clinics or by prescription for home use cause blood vessel to contract for 10 to 15 minutes and may also be affective.
About the Author: Robin Westen writes about health for national magazines.
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