Headaches, Ouch!

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Some headaches can be mild, causing some tolerable discomfort, while other headaches can cause a pain so great that they have led people to commit suicide! Most of the time, headaches are not a cause for concern, except for the pain of course, while at other times they can be signs of serious problems. Headache. The word itself causes discomfort for those who suffer from it. It is a phenomenon that is little understood, even by people in the medical field, and yet, so many people get these aches. Some headaches can be mild, causing some tolerable discomfort, while other headaches can cause a pain so great that they have led people to commit suicide! Most of the time, headaches are not a cause for concern, except for the pain of course, while at other times they can be signs of serious problems. We will go through the major forms of headaches and provide some tips for preventing them.

You mean there are different types of headaches? Absolutely! Here we will outline the three major types.

Tension-Type Headache

The most common headache by far is called a tension-type headache. These account for about 80-90 percent of all headaches, and for some people, these headaches are daily. Tension headaches are usually felt across both sides of the head in a band-like pattern, and can be felt down the neck or shoulder. For some people, they can occasionally be one-sided headaches as well, but the main difference between this type of headache and the others is that tension headaches do not “throb”. They feel more like a constant pain or pressure that is usually moderate but can be severe. These headaches are triggered by lack of sleep, poor posture, eye strain, and stress. A big problem with these is that in some people, they can and do lead to the next headache to be discussed, the migraine.

The Migraine

The infamous migraine. Famous and painful, these headaches are what many of us think of when we think about this topic. Migraines are fairly common but nowhere near tension headaches, and not everyone is prone to these. They are triggered by many similar things that trigger tension headaches, and can also be caused by an untreated tension headache. Migraines consist of headaches that start out very mild and gradually get worse, reaching a maximum amount of pain within a few hours, and they can last another few hours or even days. Migraines are one-sided headaches, and they tend to switch sides throughout the headache’s duration. They differ from tension headaches in that migraines throb and get worse with movement and exercise. The head feels like it is pounding rather than just a constant pain or pressure seen in tension headaches.

People who suffer from migraines are usually very bothered by light and sometimes by sounds and tend to find comfort in a dark, quiet room. Many times migraines are accompanied with nausea (feelings of wanting to vomit) and a weird thing called an aura. An aura is the sensation of seeing lights or waves of lights right before or during a migraine episode. With me, about half hour before I get a migraine, I either see sparkling white “stars” out to the side of my vision or a black blob, blocking my vision in one eye. Once I see either of these things, I know that a migraine is about to begin.

Cluster Headache

The last but certainly not least is the headache of headaches. This headache has been nicknamed “suicide headache” by both the sufferers and physicians. Its clinical name is cluster headache, and these are the most painful thing a human being can feel, as described to us in medical school. Although rare compared to migraines and tension headaches, affecting less than 0.1% of the population, for the people it does attack, it is very debilitating. These headaches usually affect men with a 6 to 1 ratio, and strike in “clusters”, meaning a person will have a period where (s)he gets headaches at roughly the same time every day or week, and then have a period of no headaches.

Another characteristic of cluster headaches is they are so severe that they wake a person right out of sleep, thus also called “alarm headaches”. Like migraines, these headaches strike one side of the head, but they do not get better in the dark, as the pain is so severe that it does not really respond to anything. They also come on very suddenly, reaching maximum pain within a few seconds or minutes, and they also resolve suddenly, within 15 minutes to 3 hours.

People with this headache usually sweat on the side of the headache, with that eye turning red, and the sufferer will either turn into a ball or rock back and forth for the duration of the headache. People have said that when having these headaches, it feels as if someone took a very hot hook, and hooked them in the eye, piercing the back of their head, lifted them up, and swung them around in circles. Some people, when going through a “cluster cycle”, can have anywhere from 1 to 20 of these headaches a day, and again, they say they can almost set their clocks to them because of how predictable their onset is.

Many times people with these headaches are wrongfully diagnosed with migraines, but as we can see, these are definitely not migraines. Clusters are not accompanied by auras and usually are not accompanied by nausea, although the severe pain can without doubt cause nausea in some people. As painful as these headaches are, they are “benign”, meaning other then the pain, they are not a sign of any serious condition.

What Are Some Ways to Treat These Monsters?

Tension headaches respond very well to rubbing the neck and warm baths/showers. They also respond very well to caffeine, Tylenol, Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and relaxation techniques. With these, the best treatment is prevention, and this can be done by eating regular meals, sitting correctly when working on your laptop, sleeping eight hours a day, taking a nap during the day, and meditating throughout the day, such as our daily prayers.

Migraines do not respond as well to treatment as tension headaches, but if caught right at the onset or right after seeing an aura, you can stop the migraine or at least slow it down, making it less painful by taking similar medications as tension headaches. Also, proper sleep and dealing with stress can effectively limit and prevent the onset of migraines, just as in tension headaches. There are also other options to treat these if you get them too often, and for further treatment options, please visit with your physician.

Unfortunately, the most severe of these headaches, the cluster headache, does not respond well to most forms of treatment, except for breathing in 100% oxygen from a tank. Of course, it is not easy to get an oxygen machine, so if you suspect you have these headaches, see a doctor at your earliest convenience and get a workup to determine if you really do suffer from these headaches, and that way the next step in treatment can be taken.

When Do I See a Doctor?

  • After a head injury, any headache must be treated as an emergency, especially if the pain is severe, as there can be brain hemorrhage (usually described as an extremely painful headache).
  • If the headache is always in the exact same place and same side, it warrants a visit to your physician as there is a chance this can be a tumor or a defect in the blood vessels in the head.
  • If the pattern of your daily headaches changes or you have a new headache that gets worse over a period of a few weeks.
  • If your neck is stiff and you have fevers/chills, this can be a sign of an infection, such as meningitis.
  • If you never got headaches before, and now you get them, it is worth getting them checked out.
  • If it is accompanied by numbness or confusion, as these are signs of a stroke.

Other Indirect Causes for Headaches

  • Ear infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Sinus infections
  • Cold
  • Humidity
  • Allergies

How Do Headaches Pertain to My Faith?

Headaches can both directly or indirectly interfere with one’s faith and daily life. Since our religion is not just rituals, but rather a way of life, if a person’s days are crippled by pain, (s)he cannot be an active and positive part of society when suffering from such pain and annoyance. This is especially important to those with chronic headaches. If you feel debilitated or constantly bothered by any type of headache, do not hesitate to reach out to your physician to see what can be done, as help definitely exists.

Advice for Fasting

With Ramadan around the corner, all the fasting and staying up late is definitely a recipe for headaches, but if you are prepared, hopefully the month will go by without too much pain and the need to break fast early for an Advil. Make sure to eat your Suhur and not stay up all night if you are prone to these aches, and if need be, take a Tylenol or a pain reliever of your choice along with the Suhur to remain a step ahead of the headaches.

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