Enduring a headache can be a painful, exhausting experience, and recurring headaches can have a big impact on your life. The good news is that they’re treatable, usually through a combination of medications and behavioral therapies. Talking to your healthcare provider about your specific headache symptoms and triggers can be an important first step toward effective treatment.
Many types of headaches exist. Essentially, a headache is defined as pain in your head, face, or upper neck. Headaches are the result of interactions between your brain and the nerves and blood vessels in your head. Experts don’t yet understand the underlying mechanism behind this, but certain nerves that impact blood vessels become activated and start sending pain signals to the brain.
People get headaches because of a complex mix of genetics, abnormalities in the brain, dysfunctional or overactive pain receptors, environmental triggers, and a neurological state called sensitization. The most common kind of headache, called a tension-type headache, is believed to result from the activation of pain receptors in the muscles and a connective tissue called fascia.
The right treatment for a headache depends on the type. Generally, headaches are treated with a combination of:
How long a headache lasts depends on its type:
An anti-inflammatory diet or low-fat diet may help you avoid headaches. The Mediterranean diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to lower inflammation and even alter your pain perception. It’s also low in omega-6 fatty acids, which have the opposite effect. That makes this diet a popular choice for people with headaches.
Arterial hypertension is high blood pressure in the arteries. It’s long been associated with headaches. Headache is believed to be a symptom of blood pressure that’s extremely high or rises quickly. Migraine and arterial hypertension may both involve abnormalities related to blood vessels and regulation of the cardiovascular system.
The meninges are layered membranes between your skull and brain. They’re called the dura mater, the arachnoid mater, and the pia mater. Their main function is to provide support and protection for your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Many headaches are caused by irritation or inflammation of the meninges.
Thrombosis is the formation of a blood clot inside a blood vessel, which blocks the normal flow of blood. Cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) is a clot inside a vein in the part of your brain. It can cause a headache that sometimes mimics a migraine. Both migraine and CVT may involve the trigeminal nerve in your head. The trigeminal nerve is a network of wiring that attaches to special sensors.
Finocchi C, Sassos D. Headache and arterial hypertension. Neurol Sci. 2017;38(Suppl 1):67-72. doi:10.1007/s10072-017-2893-x
Nascimento FA, Sória MG, Rizelio V, Kowacs PA. Cerebral venous thrombosis with migraine-like headache and the trigeminovascular system. Case Rep Neurol Med. 2016;2016:2059749. doi:10.1155/2016/2059749
Cleveland Clinic. Headaches: How common are headache in adults? Updated June 3, 2020.
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