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Headaches and Migraine Headaches

Just about everyone in the world has had at least one headache. Some people rarely get them, while others have them almost every day. Often we pay little attention to them and the headache is soon gone, but sometimes headaches become so painful or so frequent that we start to worry that it might be something more serious.

The good news about headaches is that the majority of them are completely harmless. However, every once in a while a headache is a warning of some serious, so how can you tell?

Chronic Headaches
You might think that the longer you’ve been suffering from headaches, the more likely they are to be dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true -- the longer you've been suffering from headaches, the less likely it is that they indicate some serious condition. As a rule, any sort of headache that you had many times over a period of several years, without developing any other symptoms, is almost certain to be harmless. Doctors call these chronic headaches. The most common types of chronic headache are tension-type headaches and migraines. If you do suffer from headaches, see your health care provider to be sure they are not anything more serious.

Tension Headaches
Tension type headaches usually feel like a tight band around the head. There are many muscles located in your scalp and in the back of your neck and head. The name tension suggests that these headaches are brought on by emotional tension and stress, or that they are caused by some sort of tension in the muscles of the neck and head. In fact, it’s not clear how significant a role either type of tension or stress plays in these headaches. It’s true that many people do get this sort of headache toward the end of a stressful day, or after working or sitting in an awkward position. You might want to try some self-massage to help relax these muscle spasms.

Migraine Headaches
Migraine headaches are a different kind of headache. The pain of migraine is usually pounding rather that tight feeling. Migraine pain is usually worse on one side of the head, and often seems to be centered around or behind one eye. Many people feel nauseated during a migraine, and then become light and sound sensitive also. That person wants to lie down in a dark, quiet room until the headache passes. Some people see zigzags of light and color that glow or 'shimmer' several minutes before their headache starts, something referred to as an 'aura'. We still don't understand why some people are cursed with migraines or exactly what goes on inside the head to cause the headache. Some people will have one or two migraine headaches in a lifetime, while others have them almost daily. Migraine headaches can be quite painful and frequent migraines can completely disrupt a persons daily life. (Links for migraine sufferers at the bottom of this page).

When to Worry, or See Your Health Care Provider?
Since chronic headaches are almost never anything to worry about, when should you worry? As a general rule, health care providers are most concerned about new headaches. If you suffer from occasional headaches, a new headache means a headache that feels different from any you've had before. The majority of new headaches turn out to be harmless. Many turn out to be migraine or tension-type headaches -- after all, everyone with chronic migraines must have had a first, new headache at the beginning. But if you are having new headaches, you should have them evaluated by a health care provider.

Headaches and Fevers
Headache and fever can be symptoms of meningitis. The word meningitis itself just means inflammation or infection of the tissue (called the meninges) and fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. Not all forms of meningitis are dangerous -- many common viruses, for example, can cause viral meningitis, which is unpleasant, but usually harmless. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is a different matter; these infections can be fatal if the are not treated quickly with antibiotics. This is the kind of meningitis you hear about in the news, often striking several children in the same school.

Does this mean that you should rush to the Emergency Room every time you have a fever and a headache? No. Many unpleasant but harmless infections like the common cold and the flu can cause fever and headache, and these infections are thousands of times more common than bacterial meningitis.

So, how do you know when to be concerned? Again, you should use your own experience as a guide. If your symptoms feel like those of colds or flu you’ve had before, then you should not be alarmed. However, if your illness feels unfamiliar -- the headache is worse, or you feel much sicker than ever before -- you should see a health care provider right away!

Anyone with a headache and fever who is drowsy or confused needs medical attention immediately! Get that person to an emergency room and call 911 in the United States if they lose consciousness.

As a rule, though, if you develop other symptoms, either during a headache, or between headaches, you must have your headaches evaluated by a physician. These symptoms include:
 Trouble speaking
 Blurry vision
  Double vision, or brief “blackouts” of vision
 Weakness, numbness, clumsiness, or tingling in one arm, one leg, or one side of the face
 Trouble with walking or balance
 A spinning sensation (vertigo)
 Drowsiness or confusion
 New headaches with migraine-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting, lights or colors in vision.

Common Fears About Headaches

There are a number of conditions many headache sufferers fear. Brain tumors, is probably the number one fear. Everyone who suffers from headaches (even if they are a doctor) worries at some point that they might have a brain tumor. We’ve all seen the movies in which someone’s headaches turn out to be caused by an incurable tumor. It does make for great drama, but, the truth is that headaches are not the first sign of a brain tumor. Other symptoms first signal this problem. Difficulty writing or speaking, weakness or clumsiness in a limb, a seizure, -- these are the sort of symptoms that signal trouble -- (though these symptoms can also be caused by many conditions other than tumors). In fact, most brain tumors don't cause any headache at all.

If headaches are disrupting your life, don't be afraid and see your health care provider. Many medical centers have departments that specialize in the treatment of headaches. There are always new headache medications becoming available too.

Headaches and Migraine Treatment

(Source: The National Headache Foundation)

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