Headaches are one of the most common complaints today in America as well as the rest of the world. Headaches have the capacity to turn your head upside down and distract you greatly from your daily routine. Medically termed as ‘Cephalalgia’, there are several types of common as well as less common headaches, each with their own specific causes, signs and symptoms. Most forms of headaches are rather benign although some headaches may be warning signs of certain ailments in the body and these signs should not be missed at the early stages for the treatment to be effective and to recover from the condition at the earliest.
Types of Headaches Based on the Causal Factors
The International Headache Society has categorized headaches comprehensively depending on the causal factors. Broadly headaches are divided into two types : Primary and Secondary Headaches.
- Primary Headaches are those which are not symptomatic of any diagnosed or undiagnosed ailments in the body and are usually caused due to extraneous factors such as tension, fatigue and stress. The stress on classifying headaches under this category is the symptoms presented and not the underlying causes. Migraines, tension type headaches and cluster headaches fall under this category. The headaches falling under this category are the more common types suffered by people worldwide.
- Secondary Headaches, on the other hand, are mainly caused by certain underlying disease conditions of the body and the headaches are merely manifestations of the ailment that can be perceived by the individual. Conditions such as meningitis, encephalitis, epilepsy and brain tumor can giver rise to secondary headaches.
What Causes the Different Types of Headaches?
The causal factor for each of the different types of headaches are different and we shall discuss the types and their respective causes in an elaborate manner.
Some of the different types of headaches across the two broad categories are: Tension Type Headache, Benign Exertional Headache, Drug Induced Headache, Migraine, Fibrositic Headache, Thunderclap Headache, Medication Overuse Headache, Vascular Headache, Organic Headache and Cluster Headache.
In general, some of the more common triggers of headache are:
- Elevated levels of tension and stress; Poor posture may also trigger tension type headaches
- Seasonal changes may trigger headaches in few individuals
- Inadequate or altered patterns of sleep; Food and eating habits
- Hormonal Triggers
Causes of Primary Headaches
Tension Type Headache
One of the most common types of headaches are those that are caused due to the tensions and pressure associated with work and everyday activities. As the name suggests, tension and stress are the core contributors to this type of headache. Tension headaches tend to affect both sides of the head with mild to moderate pain intensity. The pain is constant and excessive pressure is felt on the head, especially the forehead region. Some of the other factors that are capable of inducing headache are:
- Physical stress and strain on the body- Long hours of work, working in a seated position for long, inadequate sleep and hard manual labor may aggravate this type of headache.
- Emotional stress, excessive anxiety and depression also exacerbate headache.
- Certain food stuff also cause headaches. Food with high concentration of Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preserved food trigger headaches in few instances.
These physical and emotional stressors are responsible for the muscles around the brain and skull to tighten and clench. Muscular spasms thus produced result in the pressure and pain that is felt by the individual as headache.
Migraine headaches can be severe in intensity and are capable of stalling the person’s everyday activities once it strikes. Throbbing or pulsating pain is felt, usually only on one side of the head and sometimes may be accompanied by vomiting and nausea. The pain tends to increase with any physical activity performed by the individual.
Migraine headaches are kicked off by a variety of reasons. There is lack of a clear understanding on the precise reasons behind these attacks, however, several factors individually and in combination are believed to give rise to migraine headaches.
- Migraines are believed to be caused due to changes in the posterior brain stem region as well as its association and interactions with the important trigeminal nerve.
- Hormonal changes in women are believed to give rise to migraine headaches. Women suffering from migraines experience headache aggravation during or before the onset of their monthly periods. Oral contraception use is also believed to worsen migraine headache attacks in women.
- Stress, physical as well as emotional, also result in triggering migraine headaches.
- Alterations in one’s sleeping patterns and inadequate sleep may also result in migraine headaches.
During migraine attacks, serotonin levels drop as a result of which neuropeptides are released, triggering the pain sensation in the brain.
This type of headache is not very common. Cluster headaches are believed to be the most painful form of headaches where the person experiences such an extreme intensity of pain that it is also dubbed as ‘Suicide Headache’. Certain people are predisposed to cluster headaches and it is believed that it has some hereditary link as it tends to run in families.
- Cluster headaches are believed to be caused due to some abnormalities near the brain stem area or the ‘Hypothalamus’ portion in the brain. Brain activities have been mapped with the help of neuroimaging and the extreme pain associated with cluster headaches have been linked to the abnormalities in the hypothalamus region.
- Smoking as well as alcohol can be potential triggers that initiate the headache attack.
- Certain medications may also trigger cluster headaches. Medicines used to treat heart diseases such as nitroglycerin may cause cluster headaches.
Causes of Secondary Headaches
Secondary headaches are mainly caused due to some illness experienced by the person and may also act as warning signs of certain undiagnosed disease. Some of the prominent causes of secondary headaches are:
- Injuries and trauma to the head as well as the neck; Intra cranial bleeding associated with trauma
- Injuries which do not bleed, such as concussions, may also result in headaches
- Interruptions of blood flow to the brain as well as stroke attacks
- Intra cranial hypertension and seizures
- Brain tumor and cancerous growth in the brain
- Infections such as meningitis, encephalitis and pneumonia may also be the underlying factors resulting in secondary headaches
- Certain psychiatric disorders may also result in, and aggravate headaches.
This is another severe form of headache which reaches crescendo within a very short span of time. This is indicative of certain underlying medical conditions, some of which may be life threatening, and the most important of which is Subarachnoid Hemorrhage.
- Subarachnoid Hemorrhage is the most plausible cause for thunderclap headaches, however, these are also caused by various other conditions.
- Strokes caused due to blood clot, or thrombosis may also result in this form of headache. The Cerebral Venous Sinus Thrombosis (CVST) is one such example.
- Cervical Artery Dissection, or the tearing of arteries in and around the area of the neck may also result in thunderclap headache.
Identifying the causes for this type of headache is crucial in treating the primary ailment as well as the external manifestations of the illness in the form of headaches.
When the symptoms of headaches present themselves for an extended period of time, it is best to consult a doctor and get the underlying causal factors diagnosed in order to identify any serious condition that may be resulting in the recurrent headaches.