Common causes and types of headaches
When the nerves in blood vessels and muscles in the head change due to inflammation or irritation, pain develops. Some of the main reasons why this happens include the following:
- Stress: Any kind of strain on the body can cause headaches, particularly tension headaches. Causes include mental health and emotional problems such as depression, excess alcohol consumption, overuse of medications, eyestrain or strains in the back and neck. Skipping meals and changes in sleeping patterns can also cause tension headaches, placing the body under stress.
- An illness or injury: Signs of an infection in the body often include headache. The common cold, flu, fever, or sinusitis (sinus inflammation) are some of the most common illnesses with symptoms of headache. Throat and ear infections are also common culprits causing headaches. Sometimes a headache may be one of the first signs of a more serious medical condition. If not caused by an illness, head injuries can also result in headaches.
- The environment in which you live and work: Factors around areas your frequent, such as your home, school, areas you like to socialise in or place of work can also cause irritation, bringing on a headache. Irritant causes can include tobacco smoke, perfume or fragrances, household chemicals and other strong smells or pollution. Others include noise, weather changes and lighting.
- Genetics: Migraines are thought to run in families, especially if both parents of a child have a history of these types of headaches. The exact cause of migraines is not yet entirely known but these do appear to be triggered by unusual brain activity which may be linked to genetic problems in specific areas of the brain.
Common types of headache explained
The most common types of headaches include the following:
- Tension headaches: As previously mentioned, stress and tension headaches go hand-in-hand. Tension headaches can be experienced daily (come and go through periods of a person’s lifetime) as a chronic ailment and are the most common type among teens and adults, with pain levels ranging from mild to moderate.
- Cluster headaches: When pain is accompanied by a burning, throbbing or piercing sensation behind the eyes, cluster headaches occur. Pain can be intense, but this type of headache is not all that common. It is, however, typically a severe type of headache. This type occurs in groups, whereby they are experienced several times a day, for up to a few weeks in a row or even months, often appearing to ‘go away’ for some time (sometimes months or years) and then return.
- Migraine: This type of headache is a bit of a nasty experience, often associated with a pounding or throbbing pain. Pain can last anywhere from around 4 hours to 3 days, and can occur multiple times in a month. Symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, a sensitivity to noise, smells and light, loss of appetite, as well as pain in the abdomen or an upset stomach are experienced with this type. Children experiencing migraine may also appear pale, have blurry vison, a fever or feel a little dizzy too.
- Mixed headache syndrome: This type is also known as ‘transformed migraines’ and is typically a mix of tension headaches and migraine. This type affects both children and adults.
- Acute headaches: Typically, this type affects children and begins rather suddenly and then clears after a short period of time. This type is mostly caused by a respiratory or sinus infection, but can also be as a result of a nerve problem.
- Hormonal headaches: This type typically affects women when hormone fluctuations in the body occur. Changing hormone levels occur during a woman’s monthly menstrual period, menopause or pregnancy. Hormone changes can also be triggered when using birth control pills, bringing on regular headaches.
- Sinus headaches: When sinuses (cavities in the head) become inflamed, a deep and constant pain can be felt in the forehead, cheekbones or bridge of the nose. Other symptoms which often accompany this type of headache include fever, a runny nose, facial swelling and a feeling of fullness in the ears.
- Chronic progressive headaches: This type is also known as ‘traction’ or ‘inflammatory headaches’. This type, although rare, generally worsens and happens more frequently over time and may be as a result of a brain (or skull) disorder or illness.
Other common types include:
- Rebound headaches (due to excessive or regular use of medication to treat headaches more than once a week)
- External compression headaches (due to continuous pressure on the forehead or scalp, often experienced by sportsmen and women who wear tight eyewear, headbands or helmets)
- Ice-cream headaches / cold stimulus headaches (a brief, but stabbing pain experienced when consuming a very cold or frosty foodstuff, or beverage, or exposing your unprotected head to very cold temperatures, like ice cold water)
- Cough headaches (due to straining such as coughing, sneezing, laughing, blowing your nose or during a bowel movement)
- Spinal headaches / post-lumbar puncture headaches (these occur in at least 40% of patients who have experienced a spinal tap or lumbar puncture procedure if any spinal fluid leaks through the puncture site)
- Hunger headaches (skipping meals can cause a dip in blood sugar levels which leads to blood vessels in the brain going into spasm and causing a headache.)