The ABCs of headaches

Almost everyone has experienced a headache at some point in his or her life. It is one of the most common medical complaints, but it can still be difficult to describe. The pain can be throbbing or squeezing and can span the whole head or be localized to one part of the face or skull.

Head pain can be classified into one of three types: Primary headaches, secondary headaches and the more rare cranial neuralgias or facial pain. 

Primary headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. They are painful and can impact your daily activities. Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can usually relieve sporadic tension headaches. However, if you experience chronic headaches, preventative medication may be required. 

Migraine headaches are a common type of primary headache affecting both children and adults. Treatment is focused on stopping symptoms and preventing future episodes. Pain relieving medications can be taken during migraine episodes, and preventative medications should be taken regularly to reduce the severity and frequency.

Cluster headaches are rare, commonly affect men in their late 20s or older, and recur daily. The pain from the first episode must be managed, and the subsequent headaches must be prevented. Some migraine medications, lidocaine and oxygen are common initial treatment options.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are caused by underlying structural or infectious problems in the head or neck, including dental pain, sinus infections and more serious conditions like meningitis. Secondary headaches also include those associated with substance abuse, including hangover headaches. 

Preventing headaches depends on the type and severity of previous headaches. You can prevent some secondary headaches by avoiding their causes, like excessive drinking. For other types of headaches, you’ll need to keep track of symptoms, duration, severity and any possible triggers. As you track your headaches, a pattern will emerge, enabling you to avoid triggers and prevent future headaches.