How to Tell What Kind of Headache You Have

1. Tension headache
is the most common type of headache. The pain, which can last for weeks, is often described as a band-like pressure around the head, and tends to be fairly constant. You may be able to feel points of tenderness on the scalp, but there is no associated vomiting or aversion to bright light.

They can be brought on by stress, noise, fumes, dehydration and concentrated TV or computer screen viewing. It is important to remember that this type of headache is not dangerous. In many cases, medication available at the pharmacy will help you manage the pain.

2. Migraine headaches
are characterised by throbbing pain on one side of your head, often accompanied by vomiting, flashes of light and numbness. Symptoms can last up to 72 hours.

Stress, hormones and some foods can trigger attacks, so keep a journal to see if you can find a pattern. For pain relief, paracetamol is often taken. There are also specific anti-migraine drugs to prevent or minimise an attack. Most people find some relief by resting in a dark, quiet room.

3. Sinusitis headaches
are easily diagnosed because the headache is associated with an upper respiratory tract infection or a cold with a fever, a runny nose and tenderness around the sinuses, at the top of the nose and around the eyes. Simple steam inhalations or decongestants can help, but sometimes antibiotics are needed to clear an infection. If your headache lasts for more than a few days, see your doctor.

4. Cluster headaches
are not migraines. They tend to affect men more than women, typically beginning in your early 30s and disappearing after age 35, and occurring more frequently among heavy smokers. Symptoms usually last between 30 and 90 minutes and are recurring attacks of extreme pain, located around one eye. Other symptoms include excess production of tears and blockage of the nostril on the side of the pain, or vomiting. Painkillers and treatments for migraines tend to bring little relief. Lithium carbonate may help in severe cases, but has severe side effects, and requires close monitoring.

5. Trigeminal neuralgia
may be caused by damage to the trigeminal nerve, the main sensory nerve to the face. Causes of damage include infections like shingles, and diseases like multiple sclerosis. The pain is often sudden and severe. Attacks may last only seconds but can occur several times a day. Bursts of pain may be followed by a dull, aching sensation. Treatments include tricyclic antidepressants, anti-convulsants or surgery.

Getting the Right Treatment

To help your doctor provide an accurate diagnosis, keep a diary of your headache’s frequency and symptoms:

  • When did the headaches start?
  • Was the onset sudden?
  • Is it one headache that is present all the time or does it come in bursts? If so, how long does each burst last?
  • When do they occur and how often?
  • Are they getting worse?
  • Does the pain stab or ache?
  • Where does it occur: in one particular place or all over?
  • Is there anything that seems to bring the headache on or worsen it, such as certain foods or coughing?

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