When to Worry About Headaches
We all get headaches. Maybe your headaches are usually annoying–that throbbing behind your eyes that creates a daylong nuisance. Or perhaps your headaches are more serious, like a migraine that knocks you off your feet for a day or more.
To a large degree, headaches are variable not only from person to person, but also on an individual level–from headache to headache. And what’s more, scientists and doctors often aren’t really sure what causes most of these throbbing heads.
So, the question becomes, when should you worry about your headaches? When should you see a doctor and when can you treat the problem with simple, over the counter medication?
Different Types of Headaches
Somewhere between 50%-75% of people have had at least one headache in the last year. Maybe you get them at work, after staring at a blazing white computer screen all day. Maybe you first notice your headache when you wake up, like ice picks into your temples. Or maybe there’s that dull throb in your cheeks and nose all day.
These are all different examples of specific types of headaches. The most commonly experienced headache types include:
- Tension headaches: You’ll know you have a tension headache when you experience a dull, squeezing sensation on both sides of your head. It’s also possible for the muscles in your neck and shoulders to feel sore or stiff. Tension headaches can be caused by stress, fatigue, and a variety of other factors. Most people experience them infrequently. But it’s not uncommon for some individuals to experience tension headache flare ups several times a week.
- Migraine headaches: The worst of the worst, migraine headaches can literally put you on your back, unable to function. A migraine headache is often described as an incredibly severe and painful headache, but some migraines don’t have head pain at all. Sometimes they are accompanied by other symptoms, such as brain fog, nausea, or vision problems. Treating migraines is always a little tricky–sometimes over the counter medication is enough, but often additional therapies are required. So you should definitely talk to your doctor about options.
- Sinus headaches: When your head is pounding because of pressure in your nose and your cheeks, you can thank a sinus headache. Most often caused by sinusitis (more commonly known as a sinus infection), sinus headaches are the result of fluid buildup, inflammation, and swelling. They usually go away once the sinus infection or the inflammation is treated (or mitigated on its own).
- Cluster headaches: These headaches are aptly named. Cluster headaches present as a series of headaches. Your head hurts five to eight or more times in a single day. Cluster headaches tend to present in women more often than men. Scientists aren’t entirely sure what causes them, but they have been linked to lifestyle factors, such as stress. Prevention and therapies for cluster headache attacks may include oxygen, lidocaine, or other medications.
- Headaches after eating: Some people who are sensitive to sugar, for example if you have diabetes or hypoglycemia, can get headaches in response to their sugar level being too low or too high. Keeping your sugar levels stable can go a long way to treating these headaches.
There are other types of headaches as well, such as those caused by medication or eating cold foods. This list simply illustrates some of the most common types.
So When Is a Headache Serious?
If you get frequent headaches, it’s helpful to keep a journal. Keep track of what you were doing when you had it, what you had to eat, your stress level, and so on. Some people have food triggers or environmental allergies that spark headaches and a journal is a great way to uncover those triggers. If you’re at all concerned, make an appointment to come see us.
Definitely make an appointment if you experience the following:
- Headaches that are accompanied by the symptoms of a stroke: This might include symptoms such as blurry vision, slurred speech, or general confusion.
- Changes in mood or personality: If you notice that your mental functions change significantly when your headache strikes, that could be a red flag. That said, getting a little irritable when dealing with pain is pretty normal.
- Increasing pain: If your headache pain increases over time or if you notice the pain becomes more intense when you move around or cough, let us know.
- Headaches with other pain: If your headache occurs at the same time as a painful red eye or tender pain in your temples, that could be a warning sign.
- Headache after an injury: Any head injury can cause significant damage. A headache after a head injury of any kind could be a sign of that damage and should be treated immediately.
- Headaches that wake you up: The sudden onset of severe headaches–especially if they are severe enough to interrupt your sleep–is a sign that something could be wrong and should be checked out.
- Headaches that start when you’re older: If your headaches are pretty steady throughout your life and then suddenly get worse when you’re over the age of 50, that could be a warning sign worth checking out.
This list is not exhaustive, but it does give you a sense of what you should be watchful for. In other words, this gives you an idea of when to worry about headaches–but you should always talk to us if you believe something is wrong.
Keep an Eye on Headaches
The vast majority of headaches will indicate nothing more than stress and anxiety. Still, if you have concerns about your headaches, or you notice a change in the pattern or the pattern of these common ailments, it’s worth making an appointment.