• Headaches: Types & Causes

    Headaches: Types & Causes

    Dealing with Headaches


    Headaches, most of us, can say with certainty, that at some point, have experienced it. Maybe it didn’t last long and a one-off occurrence, causing you discomfort, but not really limiting your day-to-day function. On the other end, maybe it was a migraine – a kind of headache that you get nearly every week. That left you in debilitating pain, burying your head in the pillows in a dark room, confined to your bed for a few days while it passed.

    Who gets headaches?

    Headaches come in varying forms, with varying degrees of severity. To note, 23% of households contain at least one person who suffers from migraines. They affect women more than men, and present with a range of pain and discomfort and depending on the type of headache and severity. Such condition can manifest other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and/or sound, impaired vision, nausea, and dizziness. And while they may vary a great deal, showing up infrequently for some. On a regular schedule for others, there is no denying that their presence is unwelcome and prevention is key for maintaining day-to-day functioning.

    Here’s what you need to know about headaches, why they happen, what type you may be experiencing and some best practices for headache relief.

    What is a headache?

    A headache is a symptom of pain or a sign of emotional stress and anxiety. Just because there is pain in the head does not actually mean that there is anything going on that is wrong inside the brain, but rather likely somewhere else in the body, that is being exhibited via the symptom of a headache. The brain is an incredibly sensitive organ, so it responds actively to things like tension, stress, lack of food or water, and does so by presenting you with a headache. You can think of a headache as your little warning sign that something is wrong somewhere, even if it is something as simple as you are dehydrated or stressing out too much over your upcoming job interview!


    What are the different types of headaches?

    While you have likely heard of migraine headaches, severe unilateral headaches that typically affect one side of the head, it may be a surprise for you to know that there are actually several different types of headaches, each with their own respective cause.

    Tension Headaches

    tension headaches

    Tension headaches are a common occurrence in individuals who are regularly stressed, and occur as a result of tense muscles.

    Muscle contraction results in a moderate, dull and steady pain, across the forehead or back of the skull. Poor posture or straining of the neck muscles may stimulate these type of headaches.

    Cluster Headaches

    Cluster headaches are headaches that occur in clusters over a few weeks at a time, occurring at night. Each headache starts abruptly, lasting for about an hour, and they are most common in men over 40.

    Causes of Headaches

    Food Reaction

    Many headaches also occur as the result of a food reaction. A headache can come on suddenly after eating the food, or maybe as a delayed reaction, presenting as a dull ache. Related to food reactions, many individuals may also get headaches from other allergies and reactions, such as hay fever or sinus related reactions. This is because when there is an allergic reaction happening in the sinuses, it puts pressure on the nerves, which cause a headache.

    Dehydration and Low Blood Sugar

    Dehydration and low blood sugar are also sources of headaches as well. Headaches in these instances are partly elicited as a way of making the body aware of the fluid and sugar imbalances occurring in the body, but also because the brain requires adequate water and sugar to function optimally and when levels are low, the function can suffer as a result.

    In most cases, headaches are a symptom, and not the actual problem. They have evolved as a means of telling the body that something is awry, and out of balance.

    For example, individuals get headaches when they are dehydrated (water is out of balance), when they are hungry (blood sugar is too low), or when they are going through a stressful time at work (hormonal balance). Whatever the scenario, in each of these cases, headaches are not the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem, just like a runny nose is a symptom of a cold.

    How can I get rid of my headache and prevent it from re-occurring?

    The only way to get rid of a headache, or limit its occurrence is to fix the original problem. In some cases, on days when you are dehydrated, or haven’ eaten enough, it is an easy fix. Other times though, it can be more difficult to get rid of the headache and find the cause. That said, when you are suffering from a headache, drink lots of water and have a small amount of food to boost your blood sugar. If possible, rest in a dark room, away from sunlight and harsh lighting, and if you know the cause of your headache (stress, tension, allergy etc.), seek to fix the problem at the root.

    What about migraine headaches?

    Migraine headaches are severe headaches occurring anywhere from 2 times per year to 2-3 times per week. They are debilitating for the individual affected, often presenting with nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, auras, numbness to the face and impaired vision. They appear as severe throbbing pain, which tends to appear on one side of the head and can last for several days.

    Headache trigger

    The triggers and causes are different for everyone, but some common examples include food such as wine, cheese or chocolate. Too little or too much sleep, the onset of one’s menstrual cycle, other hormonal changes or emotional causes such as stress and anxiety are some of the factors to consider. These headaches affect more women than men, believed to be because of the changes in sex hormones in women surrounding their menstrual cycle, and there is currently no cure.

    Treatment Options for Migraines

    Treatment for migraines, however, is a very viable option and many people are able to come to a place of content with their headaches, whereby they are no longer causing a major disruption to their life. For some people, this simply involves avoiding the trigger factors, such as foods or triggering circumstances such as certain lights or sounds. For many however, it can be hard to determine what the triggering factor is to know what factors to avoid. In these instances, individuals can suffer from migraines repetitively, with no easy means of relief.

    Sometimes medication is an option, whereby doctors will prescribe strong pain medication to reduce the pain when headache occurs, or try to ward off the headache in the early stages. In other cases, alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage or float therapy are all possible options for helping mediate the headache severity and eventually helping it to go away.

    What about headaches as indicators of bigger issues?

    Most of the time headaches aren’t serious, and simply go away with time. While you can fix the triggering issue, it can be your body’s way of indicating a bigger issue is at play. Things such as tumors, hydrocephalus, and meningitis all have headaches as a symptom. In these cases, the headache may be the first clue that something bigger is happening.

    Headaches that come on suddenly or are particularly severe can be a clue of a bigger problem. And can be true, especially if the headache intensifies quite quickly, or presents with additional symptoms such as vomiting, dizziness or difficulty speaking and concentrating.


    Meningitis is a viral infection that affects the brain and can be fatal if left untreated. It presents with a headache or aching that occurs often in the back of the neck and head, and if the individual is unable to bend their head forward, this is a good indication that they may be presenting with meningitis.

    Tumors & Hydrocephalus

    Tumors present with headaches that may be a dull aching headache for an extended period of time, before presenting with more severity, while hydrocephalus, is fluid on the brain and causes headaches due to the increased pressure due to the increased fluid volume.

    Medical professionals and researchers alike understand headaches as important symptoms of bigger issues. It is the body’s warning system or red flag that something is not in balance and is requiring our attention, even if it is as simple as we need a glass of water.

    The next time you find yourself with a headache, understand that it is an important part of keeping you healthy and well. Take some time to evaluate the headache cause before simply popping a pain killer and hoping it will go away. Simply mediating the pain doesn’t fix the problem.

    Suggested Readings:

    9 Foods to eat to Manage Diabetes

    How to treat period pain?


    Nutritional Pathology, Dr. Brenda Lesser-Rhead

    Headache Australia


    Headache and Migraine: Treatments and Conditions

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