Headache pain does not arise from the bones of the skull or the tissues of the brain. Headache pain is generally caused by the stimulation or nerve fibers to the brain or other part of the head.
Headaches often occur when stress, muscle tension, or stretching blood vessel walls trigger the release of chemicals which in turn stimulate the nerve fibers. These stimulated nerve fibers relay impulses to the brain where they are translated into the perception of pain.
There are three broad categories in which headaches are classified.
- Tension Headache: This type of headache is generally caused by involuntary contractions of the muscles of the scalp, jaws, face, or neck. The pain of a tension headache is often a steady dull ache and is often described as a vice-like sensation around the temples. The pain is usually of gradual onset and may be precipitated by increased fatigue and stress.
- Vascular Headache: This type of headache is due to the dilation or widening of the arteries of the brain. The pain is often described as throbbing or pounding and is often accompanied by nausea and/or vomiting. The most common forms of vascular headache are the migraine and cluster headache.
- Migraine Headache: Often there is a warning of an approaching headache such as blurred vision, flashing lights, or tingling of the face and hands. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and may be triggered by foods such as aged cheese, alcohol, and cured meats. They also may occur after a stressful situation.
- Cluster Headache: These headaches usually occur in cycles about the same time each day (lasting less than one hour or as long as four hours). They are characterized by intense pain (usually around or behind the eyes), watery eyes, and runny nose.
- Mixed Headache: The most frequent kind of headache experienced by individuals and is likely due to the overlapping of the vascular and tension mechanisms (contraction of the skeletal head muscles and changes in the arterial blood vessels.) A “mixed headache” is often caused by emotional stress and is characterized by a throbbing diffuse pain and may be intensified by light or noise.
- Birth Control Use: Most headaches are not related to birth control pill use, but two types may be related to oral contraceptives: Those associated with fluid retention and those associated with vascular spasm. A change in pill formulation may correct the problem, but an onset of migraine headaches or an increase in the number and intensity of migraines requires discontinuation of birth control pills and prompt evaluation by your health care provider.
There are measures you can do to reduce pain:
- Use heating pad on low setting or ice bag to painful area.
- Lie in dark quiet room at first sign of attack.
- Gentle fingertip massage in front or behind ears for tension.
- Use deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
- Record on a calendar date of headache, time started and ended, and medication taken.
Prevention Although headaches cannot totally be avoided, there may be some measures you can take to help reduce their frequency. For example:
- Eat regularly. Try not to skip meals or go for long periods of time without eating.
- Try to avoid stress if that causes headaches.
- Get regular amounts of sleep.
- Avoid foods or beverages that seem to trigger headaches.
- Drink adequate amounts of water, 8-12 glasses a day.
For more information, please contact the Student Health Center at 351-2412.