Understanding Headaches

We have all likely had some sort of headache in our lifetime. Headaches can range from short, minor pains to intense pain, or in rare cases, life-threatening conditions. If you are suffering from headaches, it is important to know what you’re dealing with and how to manage your condition!

Causes of headaches

Headaches can be caused by many different things. Headaches are not a direct result from issues going on in your brain. Rather, your brain is surrounded by nerves and blood vessels that might be causing the pain, or the headache may be pain that is referred from another part of the body, like the neck or jaw.

Types of headaches

There are many types of headaches, which have different symptom presentations.

Primary headaches: Headaches that are not caused by another underlying condition are known as primary headaches.

  • Tension headaches: A headache that appears on both sides of the head, often feels like a pressure or tight pain that comes and goes. These headaches can last from minutes to days.
  • Cluster headaches: A headache that appears on one side near the front of the skull or the eye. These headaches can be very intense in pain and last minutes to hours and may be accompanied by sinus congestion, sweating, or the affected eye tearing up.
  • Migraines: A complex headache that often appears on one side of the head for hours to days, and often recurs. These headaches are usually accompanied by nausea/vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and sometimes visual or other brain-related symptoms.

Secondary headaches: Headaches that are caused by some underlying condition or referred to the head by another part of the body.

  • Referred pain: Headaches can often be contributed by other parts of the body, like the neck or the jaw. Neck tension, poor posture, or jaw pain can all cause or worsen headache pain, but would not usually cause symptoms like dizziness, nausea, or neurologic issues.
  • Serious secondary headaches: Headaches can be a symptom of something more serious, like a subarachnoid hemorrhage (brain bleed) or injury to an artery or nerve supplying the brain. They can also signify toxicity in the brain through things like carbon monoxide poisoning, or signify built-up pressure in the brain.

It is very important to be able to recognize signs that a headache may be more serious. Here are some criteria to watch out for:

  • Having systemic illness or conditions like fever, pregnancy, diseases like HIV, or cancer
  • Neurologic or other symptoms like confusion, seizures, fainting, dizziness, nausea or vomiting
  • Head trauma or sudden/new onset of intense pain
  • Symptoms that progressively get worse or change

If you have any of these criteria, get yourself checked by a doctor, as your headache may be a symptom of something more serious.

Treatment for headaches

For secondary headaches, treating the underlying condition generally improves the pain and other symptoms. A physiotherapist may be able to help with the referred pain type of headache, by working with your neck, jaw, and posture. For the more serious secondary headaches, your doctor will direct you through medical care for the underlying conditions.

There are ways to help minimize the recurrence and symptoms of primary headaches. Here are some tips to help improve these headaches:

  • Often primary headaches can result from certain triggers in your daily life. If you can identify triggers, you can work to minimize the headaches you have.
  • Stay hydrated and avoid habits that cause pressure in the head. Holding your breath and trying to push your breath out can cause a great deal of pressure to build up in your body, and especially your head. This maneuver sometimes helps when we are lifting something very heavy or when we are going to the bathroom, but it might cause headache pain to worsen.
  • Your doctor may prescribe certain medications that can help to ease headache symptoms or help prevent the onset of headaches.

We can help you figure out what type of headache you are experiencing and what direction to take to improve your symptoms!

About The Author

Jonathan Rankin obtained his MSc in Physiotherapy at McMaster University, and also completed both a BSc and an MSc in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. He has a strong background in exercise, from working as a personal trainer at the University of Ottawa to conducting research on exercise during pregnancy in his master’s degree.

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