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15 Common Causes of Headaches That You May Not Know About

What is a headache?

Headache refers to pain in and around the head. Although headache, by its very nature, may not be considered a disease condition, it is a symptom associated with several disease conditions.

Also, there are several other things that may not necessarily be a medical condition, that may result in headaches.

What are the types of headaches?

There are several types of headaches and usually, the treatment for the headache is based on the type that you have. 

Generally, headaches may be considered as being primary or secondary. One is said to have a primary headache when the headache is not a result of any other established condition.

What is a Primary Headache?

Primary headache is usually due to some form of hyperactivity of the pain receptors (called nociceptors) in your head. Basically, with primary headaches, the cause of the overactivity of these pain receptors are usually not known.

The three most common types of primary headaches that you may experience are:

  1. Migraine with or without aura: May present as a one-sided pulsating or throbbing moderate to severe pain which may be associated with nausea and vomiting. Read more on how to get rid of migraines here
  2. Tension headaches: Presents as a dull aching feeling all over your head. It is not piercing in nature but it makes you feel as if there is some sort of heavy load on your head which is causing you pain. This type of pain is usually induced by stress.
  3. Cluster headaches: This presents as a very severe, sharp, and burning pain that will usually occur around one side of your face or around your eye. It may feel as if someone has set fire to that particular side of your head or face.

Some people may have certain genes that make them more susceptible to primary headaches.

During an episode of primary headache, there may be release and interactions of chemicals and inflammatory factors in the brain, around the skull, and in the neck muscles.

These chemical processes that go on play an important role in primary headaches. 

There are some other causes of primary headaches that are not common but also worth knowing.

15 Common Causes of Headaches – wapomu.com

What is a Secondary Headache?

With secondary headaches, you may be having a disease that is able to activate the pain receptors (pain receiving or detecting structures) in the head region.

The presentation and severity usually depend on the particular condition that is causing the pain.

For instance, a sinus infection (an infection that affects structures which are located beside the nose and above the eyes) can cause secondary headaches.

This presents as a frontal type of headache and one feels more pain on touching or pressing the forehead.

Such pain is usually due to pressure build-up in the sinuses which is a result of the accumulation of phlegms.

The headache may resolve after successful treatment of the sinus infection.

With this in mind, let us now look at some of the very common causes of headaches (both primary and secondary types) that you need to be aware of so that you can prevent some of them when possible.

What are the common causes of headaches?

Here are the 15 commonest causes of headaches whether primary or secondary. So, anytime your headaches, go through this list and find the possible cause of your headache. 

Once you are able to establish the cause of your headache, you can easily manage it as such.

1. Constipation:

This is one of the commonest causes of headaches usually encountered in practice. Unfortunately, not so many people are aware that constipation can cause headaches.

Constipation can cause severe throbbing headaches and just the intake of analgesics (pain killers) may not relieve this pain until the constipation is treated.

Laxatives like bisacodyl, castor oil, liquid paraffin, lactulose, etc can be taken to relieve constipation and the patient is also advised to take in more fluid regularly to enhance rehydration.

“I treated one patient who came complaining of a severe headache and had taken pain killers and even treated malaria but got no relief.

On direct questioning, I realized that the boy had not passed stools in over 5days and was also a little dehydrated. So, I treated constipation and advised on the essence of regular hydration.

A few days later, I placed a follow-up call and he was feeling way better with no headaches.” – Dr. Obed Ehoneah

2. Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates:

The food one takes can also be the cause of headaches or may serve as a trigger of an episodic headache.

For instance, if you suffer migraines or cluster headaches then you may want to pay attention to foods you eat usually before an attack.

As such anytime you have an attack, try and keep track of what you were doing before the attack. You should also know the kind of food you took prior to the attack.

If you observe any sort of pattern between the food you eat and your headache (migraine attacks) then you have to try and avoid those kinds of foods.

Generally, foods containing nitrates may also cause headaches. This is usually because nitrates cause the blood vessels to dilate and hence more blood rushes into the brain.

The pain is therefore a result of the rush of blood flow to the brain.

3. Changes to sleep pattern or lack of sleep:

Lack of sleep is another very common cause of temporary headaches.

If you are the type who likes skipping sleep or not having enough sleep hours, chances are that you have had a few episodes of headache because you hadn’t slept for a certain period of time.

The National Sleep Foundation, USA recommends an appropriate sleep duration of 7 – 9 hours for adults between the ages of 18 and 64. To know about the recommended sleep duration for all age groups click here

Sleep is essential for the body to readjust itself and self-repair damages. Scientifically, it has been proven that there is a link between lack of sleep and headaches.

Thus, if you feel your head is aching probably because you have not slept for a while now, the best remedy will be to get a good sleep as soon as you can.

4. Poor posture:

Poor posture, whether standing or sitting has also been associated with headaches.

According to the NHS (UK), a poor posture may induce tension in your neck, shoulders, and upper back regions which can subsequently result in a headache.

This type of headache usually pierces the base of the skull and sometimes flashes into the face. You may as well feel these sorts of flashes on your forehead.

To avoid this type of headache, try not to sit or stand in one particular position for a very long time.

5. Skipped meals:

Skipping meals can induce or trigger headaches. This is usually a result of a low blood sugar level. 

Hence, if you are having a headache and you have not eaten in a long time or the time you were supposed to eat is long overdue then it may be the cause of your headache.

Find something to eat in order to relieve the headache.

6. Stress:

The role that stress plays in inducing a headache or even serving as a trigger for migraine cannot be overemphasized.

Stress in itself has been implicated as a risk factor for several debilitating disease conditions so you should try and avoid it.

As such, if you have a headache due to too much stress from a busy day, just take in some fluids and get some rest.

After a period of relaxation, the headache is likely to resolve on its own.

7. High Blood pressure:

High blood pressure or hypertension does not usually cause headaches but when it does, it is something worth paying attention to.

There is a condition called hypertensive crises (hypertensive emergency or urgency) which occurs when the blood pressure is overly high and may result in damages to one or more of the important body organs like the brain.

Hence, if you can’t associate your headache with any other cause that you may think of then, try and check your blood pressure. If you check and it is very high, you would have to consult your doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible.

8. Meningitis:

This is an infection of the brain membranes. Headache is one of the classical symptoms of meningitis. Meningitis is a very deadly condition hence it requires immediate medical attention. 

If you have a headache that is associated with fever and/or neck stiffness then you want to see your doctor to run some laboratory tests.

9. Abuse of pain medications:

The painkillers you may be taking to treat your headache can also cause headaches if you overuse them. 

As such if you are using a particular pain killer for your headache and it is not resolving, talk to your doctor or pharmacist to see if it would be changed for you.

10. Stroke:

Strokes or imminent strokes can be characterized by sudden severe headaches which may be throbbing in nature.

Hence it is advisable for individuals at risk of stroke to seek medical attention anytime they get some form of sudden severe headaches. To know if you are at risk of getting a stroke click here. 

If you have this sort of headache and you have any risk factor of stroke or a family member that has ever suffered a stroke, you have to quickly go and see your doctor.

Do well to mention to your doctor the fact that a family member has ever suffered a stroke.

11. Dehydration:

Dehydration has also been found to be one of the common causes of headaches. Dehydration simply means you have not been taking in enough fluids. How to know if you are dehydrated.

So, if you have a headache, try taking in some water or sipping some juice to hydrate yourself and this may help resolve the headache.

12. Alcohol:

Alcohol can induce two kinds of headaches. The first one is usually induced within the first few hours of taking alcohol. This is more common in people who have migraines. 

The other kind of headache is referred to as a hangover headache. This usually occurs after the effect of the alcohol has weaned off.

13. Ear infection:

One cause of headaches especially amongst children is the middle ear infection (otitis media).

A middle ear infection is associated with tenderness of the middle ear bone and this tenderness may radiate to other parts of the head. 

As such, if you have a headache while having an ear infection then the headache may be a result of the infection.

14. Dental problems:

Problems with your teeth or gums may result in pain which will radiate to other parts of your head.

So, if your headache is due to a toothache or gum infection then you may want to treat the infection to get rid of the headache.

15. Sinus infections:

As mentioned earlier, sinus infections result in clogging of the nasal passages with phlegms.

Once there is fluid build-up in the sinuses, pressure in these cavities increases, and the pain receptors pick it up. This can result in a severe headache which is usually localized at the forehead.

For headaches, associated with sinus infections, you may get some relief by hot presses on your sinuses.

You can do this by dipping a towel into hot water and applying the drained towel on your forehead and the area between your eyes.

References:

  1. Mayo Clinic (2020). Headache Causes. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/headache/basics/causes/sym-20050800. [Accessed on 13 December 2020]
  2. Watson K. (2020). 10 Types of Headaches: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/headache/types-of-headaches#_noHeaderPrefixedContent. [Accessed on 13 December 2020]
  3. Cirino E. (2018). Lack of Sleep Headache: Treatments and More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/lack-of-sleep-headache#treatment. [Accessed on 13 December 2020] 
  4. NHS (2017). 10 headache triggers. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/headaches/10-headache-triggers/#:~:text=Poor%20posture%20causes%2. [Accessed on 13 December 2020] 
  5. Cleveland Clinic (2020). Headaches: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment. [Accessed on 13 December 2020] Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9639-headaches
  6. National Sleep Foundation (2015). National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times. [Accessed on 31 December 2020]

WRITTEN AND EDITED RESPECTIVELY BY:

Dr. Ehoneah Obed is a registered pharmacist and a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana. He has a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and has experience working in a Tertiary hospital as well as various community pharmacies. He is also a software engineer interested in healthcare technologies.

His love for helping others motivates him to create content on an array of topics mostly relating to the health of people and also software engineering content.

He is knowledgeable in digital marketing, content marketing, and a host of other skills that make him versatile enough to uplift any team he joins.

Chief Editor at Wapomu.com

MPSGH, MRPharmS, MPhil.

Isaiah Amoo is a practicing community pharmacist in good standing with the Pharmacy Council of Ghana who has meaningful experience in academia and industrial pharmacy. He is a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, England, UK and currently pursuing his overseas pharmacy assessment programme (MSc) at Aston University, UK. He had his MPhil degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He has about 5 years’ experience as a community Pharmacist and has also taught in academic institutions like KNUST, Kumasi Technical University, Royal Ann College of Health, and G-Health Consult. He likes to spend time reading medical research articles and loves sharing his knowledge with others.

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