We all experience headaches at one time or another - whether it be due to an attack of influenza, the result of too much alcohol, stress or the pressure of work. Only occasionally is a headache a sign of more serious illness such as a brain tumour, stroke or cancer. Headaches are one of the most common reasons why people visit their GP. There are several types of headaches and many different triggers.

Common types of headache

Most recurring headaches are either migraines or tension headaches. The most common type of headache is a tension headache.

Tension headaches - feel like a pressure sensation or band around the head and are also felt in the neck and shoulders. Tension headaches can occur every day and may last for days or weeks at a time.

Cluster headaches - usually felt around the eyes or temples. These headaches often occur in clusters for months at a time and then disappear for months at a time.

Episodic headaches - cause severe throbbing in the back of the head.

Sinus headaches - cause pain in the forehead, temples and eyes. They are caused by sinus congestion, often due to a cold, allergy or changes in weather.

What causes headaches?

Headaches occur when the tough protective coverings that envelope the brain are affected, but the precise mechanism that causes the constriction of blood vessels surrounding the brain, and tension in the scalp and muscles, is not known.

Tension headaches are often associated with excessive contractions and spasms of neck and scalp muscles. A regular programme of daily massage can often help reduce these spasms. However, spasms can occur with any form of headache and do not explain why tension headaches occur.

What triggers headaches?

Usually it’s not difficult to determine the trigger of a headache. Triggers, however, vary from person to person.

You should keep a headache diary in order to work out the factors triggering your headaches. Write down what you were doing, where you were and what you were eating immediately prior to each headache. By carefully looking back at this, after two or three months you should be able to see a pattern emerging. It could be due to a poor night’s sleep, a busy day or stress at home. If you can isolate your triggers then you can reduce the number of headaches you get by avoiding the triggers.

Common headache trigger factors

Changes in routine, such as oversleeping or starting shift work.

Alcohol. Red wine, beer, brandy and whisky contain certain additives which can trigger headaches. Too much alcohol results in dehydration and poor quality sleep.

Caffeine. Drinking less coffee, tea or cola than usual can cause a headache that is brought on by caffeine withdrawal.

Hunger. Low blood sugar can cause headaches. People who don’t eat breakfast may develop a morning headache.

Emotional factors, such as stress, depression or frustration. Headaches can also occur after stress is relieved.

Weather. Some people develop a headache just before a storm, in humid weather or in a biting wind.

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