Americans make some 14 million visits to doctors for headaches each year.
Most headaches aren’t a sign of a serious disease. Most can be controlled by lifestyle changes, and some by medications. Occasionally a headache may be associated with a serious condition, but usually good health habits and avoiding the things that trigger your headaches will control those painful headaches.
The first step is figuring out which kind of headache you’re experiencing. Before you see your doctor, keep track for several days of your headaches, noting how they feel, where they hurt, what you were eating or drinking before they happened, and any other details you notice.
- The most common headache is a tension headache, which may be caused by stress, poor posture, sitting in an uncomfortable position (say during a road trip or a long airplane flight), or by anxiety or depression. Tension headaches often feel like a band of pressure, and may start at the back of the head and move upward and forward.
- Migraine headaches are usually very painful, and may come along with nausea or changes in vision. They can include throbbing pain. Sometimes migraines are triggered by eating certain foods, by alcohol, or by lack of sleep.
- Sinus headaches feel like pressure in the sinuses behind your nose and eyes, because they’re caused by swelling in that area. They may be associated with allergies or infections. They tend to be more painful first thing in the morning, or when you lean forward.
- Cluster headaches are recurring headaches. They tend to feel like sharp, stabbing pains and may occur every day for a period of time and then stop. They can be brought on by alcohol.
- A surprising type of headache can be caused by using pain medications too often. Sometimes called a rebound headache, this kind of headache can be seen in people who use headache pills two or three times a week over long periods. After a while, the medication stops working, but stopping the medicine can cause the headaches to get worse. These headaches require medical help.
Headaches can often be controlled by getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol, using good posture, and handling stress well. For many people, a few minutes’ rest in a quiet room is enough to end a headache.
However, there are good reasons to see your doctor about headaches. A sudden, very serious headache; headaches that interfere with your work or your daily life; and headaches that are painful enough that you feel a need to get control over them are all worth making an appointment for.