What’s your headache telling you?

Headaches are a common symptom of many medical issues, ranging from easily treatable health problems to life-threatening conditions. It can be perplexing to have to deal with the pain and not know what’s causing it, or what you can do.

Below are ten possible causes of headaches, ranked from the least serious to most urgent, and what you should do to relieve them!

1. Hunger

What it’s telling you: We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve simply been so busy you’ve forgotten to eat breakfast…and lunch too, and now it’s close to dinnertime.

Going too long without eating makes your blood sugar drop. Without glucose to power your muscles, your muscles tense and stiffen. This includes the muscles in your scalp and neck, causing a headache. Headaches caused by low blood sugar are accompanied by a cold and clammy feeling, weakness, dizziness, and irritability.

What to do: Pour some sugar on me, stat! The best quick fix for a hunger headache is a sip of sweet juice. Simple sugars in liquid form will be absorbed more easily than complex carbohydrates from solid meals, thus correcting low blood sugar faster.

2. Caffeine withdrawal

What it’s telling you: Caffeine causes vasoconstriction, or the narrowing of blood vessels in your brain. When you don’t get your fix, your blood vessels dilate, and the increase in blood flow results in a headache.

Normally, these headaches go away when you’ve drank enough joe to satisfy your body’s dependence on caffeine, but if you’re working on decreasing your caffeine intake, going back to old habits for temporary relief simply won’t do.

What to do: If you’re trying to cut down on caffeine (or any addictive substance), it’s not a good idea to do it cold turkey because the withdrawal symptoms will be severe. Instead, gradually decrease your caffeine intake by 25% every week to give your body time to adjust to lower levels of caffeine.

To manage caffeine withdrawal headaches, use a pain reliever that includes caffeine as an ingredient (though take care not to backslide into resuming full consumption). Applying topical peppermint oil to your head may also be effective at soothing your headaches.

3. Eye strain

What it’s telling you: Headaches from eye strain are common in those of us who work at a computer, read fine print, or work with small objects for long hours. Focusing on these tasks requires keeping your eye muscles contracted for long periods of time, causing headaches. Optometrist Janelle Routhier explains, “If you’re in a squat position and you’re holding it for a really long time, your legs are going to get really tired and you’re eventually not going to be able to hold that position anymore. The same thing happens to your eyes.”

Lighting may also have an effect. Extra strain is placed on your eyes when struggling to focus in dim lighting, as well as while squinting in excessively bright light. For computer users, digital eye strain is common, thanks to the blue light digital screens emit.

What to do: Take frequent breaks to rest your eyes when reading or working on a computer. Close your eyes and massage your temples and eyeballs – but don’t rub! Adjust lighting in your work space so it’s neither too dim nor too bright. For computer users, you might benefit from installing a blue light filter on your device. You could also wear multi-coated glasses to protect your eyes.

4. Hormonal shifts

What it’s telling you: For the ladies, have you paid attention to when you last had your period? A headache may be a sign that your next menstrual period is right around the corner. The female reproductive hormone estrogen plays an anti-inflammatory role in body processes. However, estrogen levels dip just before your period arrives, reducing your ability to regulate inflammation and pain. The risk for headaches increases up to 71% two days before your period starts.

However, if you find you’re delayed, consider that you might be pregnant. Hormonal shifts and an increase in blood volume during pregnancy may result in headaches.

What to do: Make tracking your menstrual cycle a habit so you can predict when your next period headache might be. Being able to anticipate your next period will allow you to take preventive measures, such as taking over-the-counter pain medications. If your hormones are disrupting daily functions and impairing quality of life, you might want to consult a gynecologist. Hormonal contraception might help regulate your hormones and reduce symptoms like headaches and heavy periods

5. Stress and anxiety

What it’s telling you: Occasional stress is a nudge towards productivity, but when your mind is in a chronic state of stress, it puts your body on the fast track to physical symptoms as well. Chronic stress increases tension in your neck and back, which may eventually radiate upwards to the head. You may find it difficult to concentrate, relax, enjoy daily activities, or sleep. The effect of these symptoms on your quality of life often triggers a vicious cycle of more stress and anxiety.

What to do: Practice stress management techniques like aerobic exercise, meditation, and deep breathing. Of course, the best way to get rid of any symptom is to treat its root cause. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help in resolving your anxiety. Ironing out the issues causing your anxiety or taking medications to manage it will go a long way in preventing you from getting more headaches.

6. Sinusitis

What it’s telling you: Headaches can also come from cold weather wreaking havoc with your sinuses. In the cold months, the air becomes dry and thin. The mucosal lining of the sinuses dries out from inhaling this air too, so the mucus thickens and doesn’t drain. This can cause your sinuses to become inflamed. Pressure inside the sinuses goes up, which results in a headache. Headaches caused by sinusitis often present with coughing and a cold.

What to do: Sinusitis is treated by draining the sinuses and reducing inflammation. Placing warm compresses on your face, drink plenty of warm fluids, and using an air humidifier are all good home remedies for sinusitis. Your doctor might also prescribe nasal sprays, pain medication, or antibiotics.

7. Erupting wisdom tooth

What it’s telling you: Wisdom teeth typically come in at the age of 18-25 (an age when you’re expected to already be wise!).

As your wisdom teeth emerge when most of your other teeth are already in place, they might not have enough room to fully erupt into the mouth. The impacted tooth will then push your other teeth aside to create room for itself. During this time, you’re likely to hold your jaw differently in order to avoid jostling your swollen gums. This unnatural position can make your jaw joint ache and your muscles tense up, causing pain in your jaw, neck, ear, and head.

What to do: See your dentist about getting a dental x-ray to see whether your erupting wisdom teeth are impacted. Impacted wisdom teeth typically need to be surgically removed.

8. Vision Problems

What it’s telling you: A usual culprit of frequent headaches are eye problems.  Some of these include:

  • Astigmatism, which distorts your cornea
  • Nearsightedness or farsightedness
  • Presbyopia, which causes your lens to stiffen and lose flexibility
  • Cataract, which clouds the lens and blurs vision

All these conditions impair vision and cause you to strain your eyes, pulling on the muscles that control them and resulting in a headache

What to do: If you’re experiencing vision problems and it’s been a while since you’ve had your eyes checked, it might be a good idea to see an ophthalmologist. They’ll be able to diagnose any vision problems you may have and set you on a treatment plan. Or it might simply just be time to update your prescription glasses.

9. Stroke

What it’s telling you: A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted and brain tissue dies from lack of oxygen. This can be due to a blockage or a rupture of a blood vessel in the brain. The change in the pressure inside the skull causes an abrupt and severe headache, which is sometimes confused with a regular migraine.

Suspect your headache is a sign of stroke if it is accompanied by FAST symptoms: facial numbness or asymmetry, arm weakness or numbness (causing your arm to drop), and slurring of speech. T stands for the time these symptoms began.

What to do: A stroke is a medical emergency. If you note any of these signs, seek medical attention straightaway. Getting treated as soon as possible will increase your chances of survival and decrease the possibility of complications like paralysis, memory loss, or language impairment.

10. Increased intracranial pressure

What it’s telling you: Since the skull is a closed box of bone, any increase in the matter inside of it alters its internal pressure (called intracranial pressure). This can be:

  • Brain tissue, as in brain tumours or swelling after a brain injury
  • Blood, as a stroke or an aneurysm
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that lubricates your brain and spinal cord), as in meningitis

Conditions involving increased intracranial pressure are serious. Headaches are accompanied by symptoms such as a change in consciousness or behavior, projectile vomiting, weakness, blurred vision, slurred speech, or lethargy.

What to do: If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away. Increased intracranial pressure is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention. The earlier you seek help, the better your chance at recovering completely and preventing complications.    

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