Nearly everyone has an occasional headache. Usually it is mild and brief although some headaches may last a long time or feel very severe. Headaches have many causes and are not often associated with serious medical problems. Safe and effective treatments allow most people suffering from a headache to resume their normal activities within a short period of time. It is important to understand what causes a headache and how it might be possible to avoid one.
Irritation of nerve endings from different parts of the head and neck can produce the unpleasant sensation that we recognize as a headache. These pain-sensitive nerves can be stimulated by stress, muscular tension, dilated blood vessels, and inflammation. Although the pain can sometimes feel as though it originates from deep inside the head, the brain tissue itself lacks pain-sensitive nerves and does not cause this kind of discomfort.
Tension headaches are the most common form of headache and will affect two out of three people at some point in their lives.i The pain is often described as 'a tight band' or 'vise' felt on both sides of the head. It is usually mild or moderate in intensity and typically lasts 4 to 6 hours. Muscles of the neck and shoulders may also feel sore.
Migraines, another type of headache, are characterized by severe pain on one side of the head, nausea, and sensitivity to light, sound, or movement. About twenty percent of migraines are preceded by an "aura" such as flashing lights or decreased vision.ii The onset of pain is gradual and most migraines last between 4 and 72 hours. Women are three times more likely than men to experience a migraine headache.iii Migraine symptoms are often treated with prescription products. Migraine pain may be treated with certain OTC pain relievers (not including Aleve) specifically labeled for migraine pain.*
"Cluster" headaches are less common than migraines. These headaches are characterized by brief recurring episodes of intense pain on one side of the face and are associated with tearing of the eyes or a runny nose. Aleve is not approved for the treatment of cluster headaches.
Rarely, headaches are caused by irritation or swelling of structures in the face, skull, or brain. These conditions are associated with more serious underlying medical problems and often require prompt evaluation by a doctor. For example, bacterial meningitis causes a severe headache that is accompanied by a high fever, neck stiffness, and sensitivity to bright light. Sinus headache pain is felt in the cheeks and forehead. It may become more intense when bending forward or lying down. The headache of temporal arteritis can be associated with scalp tenderness and decreased vision .iv
iPrevalence of headache in Europe: a review for the Eurolight project
Stovner LS, Andree C
J Headache Pain 2010 11:289-299
Cutrer FM, Huerter K;
iiiMigraine prevalence, disease burden, and the need for preventive therapy.
Lipton RB, Bigal ME, Diamond M, Freitag F, Reed ML, Stewart WF, AMPP Advisory Group
ivGiant Cell Arteritis: Suspect it, treat it promptly
Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2011; 78(4): 265-270