By Connie Colbert
Director, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 14 million people have daily headaches. In the U.S, approximately 45 million Americans complain of headaches each year and more than eight million visit their doctor for that reason.
The most common type of headache is a tension headache. Statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of the population suffers from tension headaches as least once.
Another type of headache is a migraine. This is the second most common type of headache but affects far fewer (about 16 to 17 percent of the population). However, it can be more debilitating than a tension headache.
So how do you know the difference?
Characteristics of a tension headache:
- Frequently associated with stress and fatigue, eye strain, lack of sleep
- Muscular tightness or stiffness in the neck and or shoulders
- Often present upon waking up or shortly after
- Generally respond to simple measures such as rest or over-the-counter pain medicines
- The pain usually occurs on both sides of the head and consists of a dull, steady ache
- It also may produce a feeling of pressure similar to the sensation caused by the placement of a vice or a tight band on the head and/or around the neck
- Pain develops gradually, fluctuates in severity and can remain for several days
- Pain is mild to moderate
- Pain is typically generalized, with areas of more intense pain in the scalp, forehead, temples or the back of the neck – usually bilateral
- Sensitivity to light and noise are rare
- Nausea and/or vomiting is uncommon
Migraines are caused by a combination of vasodilatation (enlargement of blood vessels) and the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around the blood vessels.
During a migraine attack, the temporal artery enlarges. (The temporal artery is an artery that lies on the outside of the skull just under the skin of the temple.)
Enlargement of the temporal artery stretches the nerves that coil around the artery and cause the nerves to release chemicals. The chemicals cause inflammation, pain, and further enlargement of the artery. The increasing enlargement of the artery magnifies the pain.
Characteristics of a migraine:
- Deep, throbbing and pulsating pain
- Deep, stabbing pain around the temple or eye
- Generally one side of head or eye
- Pain moderate to severe
- Sensitivity to light and noise
- Sensitivity to smells (sometimes)
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- If severe, may not respond to over-the-counter medications. A prescription medication is often necessary.
- Visual Prodromal or Aura before the onset of pain may occur. This includes flashes or flashing lights, colors, smells or blurry vision.
Triggers of a migraine:
- Bright lights
- Loud noises
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Exposure to smoke
- Skipping meals
- Menstrual changes
- Foods containing tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs and some beans)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Nitrates (such as bacon, hot dogs and salami)
- Other foods, such as chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, avocado, banana, citrus, onions, dairy products and fermented or pickled foods
Prevention is key! But if you ever get what you consider “the worst headache of your life” or experience a change in headache pattern and/or severity or accompanied by weakness or visual changes, seek medical attention immediately!