Causes of Head Pain


Nearly everyone experiences some type of head pain in their lifetime. Most headaches are nothing to worry about, but others may indicate a more serious health condition. Over 300 types of headaches have been identified, but only 10 percent have actual known causes. Types of head pain, causes and symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:

Tension headaches typically produce a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. The pain associated with a tension headache is often described as if the head is "in a vice." They are often triggered by stress, fatigue, or muscular or joint problems in the neck or jaw.

Migraines are believed to be caused by changes in blood flow and nerve cell activity in the brain. Seventy percent of all migraines are experienced by individuals who have a genetic predisposition. Some migraines are preceded by auras (vision changes, halos, sparkles, flashing lights, wavy lines, and even temporary loss of vision). Migraines can be triggered by various factors: weather changes, insufficient sleep, stress, sensory stimuli, dietary choices, etc.

Cluster headaches appear suddenly, affect one side of the head (generally behind an eye), and usually last from 15 minutes to three hours. Cluster headaches are uncommon and typically involve severe pain. They can cause a droopy eyelid and a runny or stuffy nose. Cluster headaches are cyclical; a period of everyday headaches followed by a period of remission is common. Middle-aged men with a history of smoking are most at risk for experiencing cluster headaches.

Medication headaches are caused by another medication; ironically, even headache medications (if overused) can cause medication headaches. To determine if a headache is a medication headache, discontinuing or tapering of medication may be needed; this should only be done under a health care provider’s supervision.

Sinus headaches cause pain throughout the forehead, around the eyes and nose, over the cheeks, and even in the upper teeth. Nasal discharge, congestion and fever indicate a sinus infection. When the infection is treated, the pain typically subsides.

Hypertension headaches can occur as a result of extremely high blood pressure. A hypertensive crisis, otherwise known as malignant hypertension, is an event that occurs when pressure builds in the cranium due to a sudden spike in blood pressure. A hypertension headache does not feel like a migraine or tension headache, and typical medications will not help. In addition to the headache, other symptoms, such as blurry vision, chest pain or nausea, are often present. A hypertension headache is a medical emergency. It requires immediate medical care.

Exercise and sex-related headaches occur during or after any sudden, strenuous exercise or sexual activity. These types of headaches can usually be prevented by taking an NSAID 30 to 60 minutes before engaging in exercise or sex.

Brain tumors can cause debilitating head pain. Depending on the type and location of a brain tumor, the intensity of head pain varies.

Blood clots develop in veins and restrict proper blood flow. If a blood clot forms in the brain or travels to the brain from another location, it causes immense pain and can result in stroke or death.

Intracranial hemorrhages involve bleeding that occurs inside the skull. Symptoms can include sudden tingling, weakness, numbness, paralysis, severe headache, difficulty swallowing, loss of balance, etc. A change in consciousness or awareness is common with an intracranial hemorrhage. Emergency medical care is required.

Concussions are mild traumatic brain injuries that can occur after a sudden impact to the head. Symptoms include memory problems, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, double or blurred vision, headache, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, balance problems, and slowed reaction to stimuli. A concussion requires a medical diagnosis but usually does not require major medical treatment.

Dehydration occurs when the body lacks sufficient hydration. It can be mild, moderate or severe. Fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive sweating and frequent urination can cause dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration are thirst, dry mouth, reduced urination, dark yellow urine, dry skin, cool skin, headache and muscle cramps.

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that cause damage to the optic nerve. It is often caused by abnormally high pressure in the eye. Symptoms include blind spots, halos, or lights in both eyes; tunnel vision; severe headaches; eye pain; nausea; vomiting; blurred vision; and redness of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause blindness.

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. Symptoms are a fever over 100.4 F (38 C), aching muscles, chills, sweats, headaches, dry cough, fatigue, weakness, nasal congestion and sore throat. Influenza may be mistaken for the common cold; however, influenza comes on suddenly and symptoms are more severe than the common cold.

Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear when no real danger or tangible cause is present. They can cause severe physical and emotional symptoms. Typically, symptoms include a sense of impending doom/danger, fear of loss of control or death, rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tightness in the throat, chills, hot flashes, nausea, abdominal cramping, chest pain, headache, dizziness, lightheadedness, numbness or tingling, and feelings of unreality or detachment.

Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is disrupted. Symptoms of a stroke include, but are not limited to, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, confusion, dizziness, severe headache, dimness of vision, loss of balance, vomiting, nausea, or loss of consciousness. An abrupt loss of vision, strength, coordination, sensation or speech are also symptoms of a stroke. If any signs of stroke are exhibited, it is crucial to get emergency medical treatment for the best chance of survival and recovery.

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