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UPMC Expert: Understanding Headaches

If you have experienced a headache or migraine, you know how debilitating they can be. As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 3% of all annual emergency department visits in the United States are due to complaints of headaches. While most headaches are not the result of a serious illness, they still can interfere with your overall quality of life.
Types of Headaches

When most people think of a headache as a dull pressure and discomfort in the head, they’re describing a tension headache. These headaches are very common and most often do not have additional symptoms. While they can be painful, they are rarely a sign of more serious illness. Tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter medications and lifestyle modification can often help reduce their frequency.

Cluster headaches, which occur in cyclical patterns or cluster periods, are one of the most painful types of headaches along with migraines. A cluster headache commonly awakens you in the middle of the night with intense pain in or around one eye on one side of your head. Bouts of frequent attacks, known as cluster periods, can last from weeks to months, usually followed by remission periods when the headaches stop. During remission, no headaches occur for months and sometimes even years. Cluster headaches are rare and not life-threatening.

Migraines are a type of severe headache and include symptoms like intense pulsing or throbbing in one area of your head; sensitivity to light, sounds, or smell; blurred vision; and nausea or vomiting. Frequent migraines may be a sign of something more serious. If you experience migraines frequently, it’s important to speak with your physician to rule out underlying issues. Migraines can be treated with medication, lifestyle modification, and other therapies.
Causes and Available Treatments

Many tension headaches can be relieved by means other than medication and the frequency of more serious headaches like migraines can often be reduced through lifestyle modification. It depends on what causes the headache and the type of headache.
Below are some common headache triggers and ways to reduce their effects:

Anxiety and stress – Take deep breaths, go on a walk, and incorporate healthy stress-relief activities into your daily routine.

Loud noise – Turn down the volume or walk away from sources of loud noise.

Light – Put down your screens or lower the brightness on devices and try not to overexpose yourself unprotected to sunlight.

Physical activity – Find a balance between pushing yourself too hard and being too sedentary.

Sleeping – Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and have a regular nighttime routine.

The best way to gain control of and prevent frequent headaches is to learn if you have triggers. Keep a headache journal to record events before, during, and after each headache. How much you sleep, your activities, causes of stress, and the foods and beverages you ingested should be recorded. This information helps you and your physician determine significant patterns and triggers. It also helps your physician create a personalized treatment plan.
When to Seek Care

If headaches are taking a toll on your life day-to-day, it’s time to make an appointment with your primary care provider. This could mean that your headaches are happening more often, they have been more severe, or that Tylenol or other over-the-counter medicines no longer relieve your symptoms.

If your symptoms affect your motor functions (trouble walking or speaking, numbness or weakness of any kind), nausea or vomiting, or if you’ve fainted, you should call 911 or go to the emergency department.

UPMC Expert: Understanding Headaches
Carrie Timko, M.D.
Family Medicine, UPMC

UPMC Primary Care is located at 610 High St., Lock Haven. To schedule an appointment at this location, call 570-748-1250. For more information about UPMC Primary Care services in north central Pa., visit