The term headache disorder encompasses a wide variety of nervous system conditions that cause painful symptoms in the head. Headache disorders include headaches and migraine. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), headache disorders affect approximately 50% of adults around the world.
A migraine is also common and affects about 15% of the population. Migraine attacks can be extremely intense and disabling. Although the migraine sufferers are symptom free in between attacks the psychological and social affects can severely affect school, home and work life.
Some people may have trouble differentiating between a migraine, which is a chronic condition, and a common headache.
Your GP will need to get a detailed history of the attacks to be able to make a diagnosis and offer you the best management. They may also refer you to a specialist if necessary.
What is a headache?
There are many different types of headaches, which experts have classified into two main groups — primary and secondary.
Primary headaches refer to independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Examples of primary headaches include migraines and tension headaches.
Secondary headaches occur as the result of another medical condition, such as an infection, stress, or medication overuse.
- Pain in the head, face, or upper neck, and can vary in frequency and intensity.
Primary headache disorders
There are 4 main types of common headache:
- Tension headache
- Cluster headache
- Medication overuse headache
It is important that you obtain the correct diagnosis as the treatment is different for all of the above.
Secondary headache disorders
Illnesses and chronic medical conditions that affect the nervous system can cause secondary headaches. Causes of secondary headaches include:
- Sleep disorders
- Brain tumours
- Withdrawal from medications or drugs
- Head trauma
- Leaking spinal fluid
Migraine is not just a bad headache
There can be changes in vision, sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises and even strong smells. There can be associated nausea and vomiting. When a migraine occurs, people may have to go into a dark room and lie down or sleep for a few hours to get through the worst of the migraine.
There are 2 different approaches to treatment:
- To stop a migraine as quickly and effectively as possible
- To reduce or prevent further migraines
Effective treatment for a headache disorder requires a timely and accurate diagnosis. A doctor can diagnose headache disorders, including migraine, based on an individual’s symptoms and medical and family history. They may refer a person to an expert or Neurologist, who specialises in nervous system disorders.
People with migraine or another headache disorder might notice that certain things trigger their symptoms. Triggers can vary and they can include anything from environmental changes to specific foods.
Other migraine triggers may include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Hormonal changes
- Lack of sleep
- Alcohol consumption
While there is no cure for headaches or migraine, people can use medication and lifestyle changes to treat their symptoms and help prevent future episodes.
People can treat tension headaches and mild migraines with over-the-counter (OTC) medications including anti-inflammatories. Moderate to severe migraine symptoms may not respond to OTC treatments. In this case, people may require prescription medications.
There are some alternative therapies that may be effective but they seem to only work for some people and the benefit is variable. These include:
- Coenzyme Q10
People should speak to a doctor if they experience frequent headaches that interfere with their ability to function or their quality of life.
To book an appointment with one of our GPs, please call 0161 428 4464. Our doctors can then provide an onward referral to a headache specialist if required.