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National Headache Awareness Week Focuses on Common Health Problem

June 07, 2011

Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in the Morning

Most people have probably experienced the common headache. You just take some over-the-counter pain medication and that usually does the trick. But when is a headache just a headache, and when is it something to worry about? This week is National Headache Awareness Week (June 5-11), designed to raise awareness about headaches and their causes and treatments.

"The headache you should worry about is the thunderclap headache that comes on suddenly and is the worst headache you have ever experienced," said Dr. Michael Parmley, a local internist who is a member of the Washington Hospital staff. "Most headaches come on slowly, and even though they can be very painful, they are much less likely to be anything serious."

He said the most common type of headache is the myofascial headache, also known as a tension headache. These headaches are usually caused by muscles in the head, neck, shoulders, upper back, and face.

"It can be difficult because it’s not always clear which muscle is causing the pain," Parmley said. "A muscle in the side of the neck can cause pain in the forehead, for example. The fact that a person can experience pain far from the problematic muscle makes it harder to diagnose."

He said while common, tension headaches can be painful and debilitating. They can usually be treated effectively with over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, although he cautioned against giving children aspirin due to the increased risk for Reye’s Syndrome.

Another cause of chronic tension headaches is the overuse of these types of pain medications, he added. When pain medications are used for a prolonged period of time, a rebound effect can occur, he explained.

"That’s why you should see your doctor if you are having a lot of headaches," Parmley said. "It could be that you are suffering from this type of rebound effect. Caffeine can also help alleviate the pain, but too much caffeine can cause headaches. You may also have a sinus infection, which can cause headaches. Your doctor can help you figure out why you are getting so many headaches."

Migraine Pain

Migraine headaches are the second most common type of headache, according to Parmley. They can cause severe pain and last for hours and even days. About 18 percent of women and 7 percent of men in the U.S. suffer from migraines, according to the World Health Organization.

"There are a lot more options today for people who experience migraines," he said. "There are a number of medications available today that are very effective at reducing the pain caused by a migraine."

The typical migraine causes a pulsating pain on one side of the head. Parmley said other symptoms include nausea, sensitivity to light and vomiting. Some migraine sufferers also experience what is known as an aura, a neurological phenomenon that precedes or accompanies a migraine, he added. This could include seeing flashes of light or feeling strange sensations on the skin.

The cluster headache is the third type of headache and it’s the least common, according to Parmley. Cluster headaches can cause excruciating pain. They are called "cluster" headaches because they tend to occur in clusters, with active periods that can last weeks or months followed by periods of remission, he explained.

Headaches can also occur after a fall or other accident where you hit your head, Parmley said. You should seek medical attention if you hit your head, particularly if you lose consciousness, he said.

"Headaches have so many causes that it requires fully understanding a patient’s medical history and daily routines, and even then it can be hard to pinpoint," Parmley said. "Diagnosing and treating headaches is often more of an art than a science."

The best way to avoid headaches is to take good care of yourself, Parmley said. Exercising can help to reduce stress and getting up and moving occasionally during the day can alleviate muscle pain.

"Gentle neck and shoulder rolls throughout the day can help," he said. "Lifting weights can strengthen the muscles in your back so you are less prone to headaches. Ergonomics is important also, so make sure you are sitting correctly at your desk." 

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