Has a dull throb got your head in a vice with the strength of an early career Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Or have you got pulsating, lightening-rod pain having a party on one side of your head?
The types of headache – and their causes – are infinitely more complex than you might first think. From how your hormones can come into play, to migraine headaches versus tension headaches, here’s what an expert wants you to know.
The common types of headache and their location
To get technical for a sec: the term ‘migraine’ is a diagnosis; ‘headache’ is a symptom. You can experience migraine without the symptom of a headache and, say, feel dizzy and sick. A migraine will involve pain on one side of your head, perhaps sensitivity to light, as well as to loud noises and smells, and can include nausea. Some people experience kaleidoscopic vision and have difficulty seeing.
Whether or not you’ll experience migraine is a genetic thing. If your genes do code for it, you might never know, because your symptoms look like a couple of headaches a year that you take painkillers for and forget about, so it’s all good.
Effectively, they are much more prevalent than you might think. ‘Migraine affects one in seven people in the UK, with women three times as likely to experience them than men, says Dr Katy Munro of The National Migraine Centre. ‘They often go undiagnosed – a 2004 study showed that, 98% of the time, if a physician diagnoses migraine, they’ll be correct, but 94% of the time, if they diagnose a patient with headaches as not having migraine, they’ll be wrong.’
Another thing to mention is that migraine headaches tend to be brought on by a mix of factors – so, perhaps you’re dehydrated after spin, but you also had a bad night’s sleep and your blood sugar is low, so you’ve got this mini perfect storm brewing.
Then there’s tension headaches, which can result from external factors like stress and dehydration. ‘This feels like a sort of band around the head,’ says Dr Munro. ‘I am of the opinion that what is commonly diagnosed as a tension headache tends to be a migraine symptom – often, if you dive into the medical history of someone who comes in with one, you’ll find that they also sensitive to light and other migraine markers.’
These feel like searing pain behind one eye and tend to come in waves of a slew throughout a single day. They make you feel agitated, as opposed to a migraine, which is more likely going to get you seeking solace in a cool, dark room, explains Dr Munro.
Let’s move into the specific reasons why one the types of headache might be triggered.
10 reasons for your headache – and the types of headache to worry about Your hormones are going haywire
It’s thought that the reason that women are more prone to migraine than men is thanks to hormones. ‘The peak time for headaches like this is puberty, or in the perimenopause,’ says Dr Munro.
‘This is thanks to changes in your oestrogen levels – when these drop, it can irritate your brain.’ As such, if you deal with headaches around your period, then this is likely due to said hormonal fluctuations. When this trigger marries up with another factor – like you’re tired – nasty headaches can take over your brain like some sort of evil parasite.
If you do get headaches when you’re about to come on, then this is likely a symptom of migraine, and you should head to your doctor to explore potential hormone regulation treatment.
You’re sleeping too much or too little
If you’re underslept and you throw another trigger into the mix (say, you drink 10 coffees – more on this, later), then you may well experience a headache. But, weirdly enough, Dr Munro says that a massive weekend lie-in can have the same result.
The upshot? It’s harder than figuring out your macros, sure. But trying to stick to a relatively consistent sleep routine (in which you don’t snooze any later than an hour an a half after your weekday wake-up time) can help.
Your office is a headache trap
Between bright, flickering lights, neck tension as result of craning into your laptop, stuffy air quality (hi, meeting rooms designed for ants), modern day offices can be headache traps, explains Dr Munro.
What can you do? Avoid sitting in one position for too long and make sure you stretch your legs out, try and take screen breaks and make sure that you’re setting yourself up to deal with stress by getting into a mindfulness practice, working out regularly and having a strong night wind-down routine (think hot baths and reading before bed).
Alcohol is not your friend
For folk who do get migraines, ‘alcohol is a big trigger,’ says Dr Munro. Even if you’re not a migraine sufferer, then you know all too well that a big night means a banging head come the AM, thanks to alcohol dilating blood vessels in your head.
Sad, but the best thing here is to scale those Margaritas right down, choose something low proof and stick to one or two measures.
Stress can cause headaches – but so can a big decrease in your stress levels: for instance, the Saturday morning after a hard week in which you suddenly relax. Weird, yes – but true.
‘The best way to deal with this to try and use the stress relieving techniques mentioned before,’ says Dr Munro. ‘Mindfulness, exercise and practising good sleep hygiene.’
You’re overusing pain killers
Okay. So if you do have migraines, and have headaches as a symptom, then you’ve probably got a stash of painkillers in your deskside drawer. But, exercise caution.
‘We sometimes see people changing from occasionally having episodes of migraine, to constant daily background headaches,’ says Dr Munro. ‘This can happen if you start to take Paracetamol or another simple painkiller every day – they start to push the headache along.’
If you’ve dialled it up with codeine for your pain relief, then that could be triggering your headaches, too. ‘Codeine is easily available and is also still marketed for migraine. But, in my opinion, it can make migraine worse, makes you feel sick – and it’s addictive,’ Dr Munro elaborates.
If you’re on that half marathon training plan hype then you’ll know that sweating + not drinking = a pounding head. Why? Your brain can temporarily contract from lack of fluid, giving you that tight, shrinking feeling. Chuck back that H20 and it’ll be all gravy. You’re going too hard on the oat milk lattes Sorry. ‘Caffeine is a funny one,’ says Dr Munro. ‘If you have one flat white a day, you’re probably going to be fine. But go up to three or four a day, and if you do have the genes that code for migraine, you might irritate your brain and get a headache.’