Headaches are among the most common ailments experienced by people on a daily basis. Chronic headaches, however, occur either every day, or every other day for a period of three months or more. It is estimated that almost 5% of the population is affected by this condition which primarily manifests as chronic migraine headaches, chronic tension headaches and, rarely, cluster headaches.
The most baffling part of chronic headaches are the causes, as there are no, well-understood indications of exactly how or why they manifest. There are various underlying conditions that may facilitate their development as well as some possible factors, but the greatest frustration with chronic headaches remains in all of the unanswered “whys” of the ailment itself.
Chronic Headache Types to Tackle
The three main types of chronic headaches are chronic migraines, chronic tension headaches and cluster headaches. Each type can be diagnosed as vascular, tension, also known as muscle contraction, traction or inflammatory.
Vascular headaches are those that typically cause chronic migraines, involving abnormal functioning of the brain’s blood vessels or vascular system. In contrast, chronic tension headaches are caused by muscle contraction, which involves the tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles.
The other two diagnoses are indicative of other disorders, as many conditions and chronic illnesses also include symptoms such as chronic headaches. Relatedly, stress and anxiety can predict the onset of headaches and other disorders.
Delving Into the Unknown: Speculated Causes of Chronic Headaches
Although there is much that remains unknown about the causes of all of the types of chronic headaches, there is speculation as to what may truly be underlying each specific type.
The cause of migraine headaches is still unknown, but researchers agree that they are neurologically based. Previously, migraines were thought to be caused by the dilation of blood vessels found throughout the brain. New research disputes this belief, however, claiming instead that chronic migraines are the result of chemical, cellular changes in the brain.
Like migraine headaches, the causes of tension headaches have been revised and revisited over time as well. In the past, researchers had thought that tension headaches were the result of stiffness or pain in the neck and shoulders, making them believe that muscle tension was indeed the cause of these headaches. New research has somewhat changed this belief, as it is now thought that excessive input from the muscles of the head traveling to the pain control center in the spine are the source of the pain and discomfort.
While there are some vague indications of the underlying causes of the first two types of chronic headaches, cluster headaches remain mysterious. Distinguished by the fact that they occur in short bursts over a length of time, cluster headaches can be caused by vascular changes in the brain or some other factors. Due to the rarity of this form of chronic headaches, there is much to be learned about cluster headaches.
Symptoms Across the Headache Types
Due to the different causes of each type of chronic headache, there are also many different symptoms that are indicative of each one as well.
Migraines are extremely unique from the other two types as they come with many different areas of symptoms including visual, gustatory and auditory. Visual disturbances are common for those with migraines, causing people to see flashing lights or blurred figures. Migraines also entail a metallic taste in the mouth, as well as sensitivity to both light and sound. Nausea, vomiting and fatigue are also common symptoms of migraines, leading to a very debilitating state for those who may suffer from these headaches.
Tension headaches are more basic in the symptoms that they can cause. Characterized by a dull, aching pain felt around the entire head, tension headaches can cause the sensation of tightness or pressure across a person’s forehead or on the back and sides of the head. Occasionally, the pain and discomfort felt on one’s head can extend down to the neck and shoulders. This not only causes further pain, but can also affect other parts of the body such as the digestive tract, resulting in loss of appetite.
Cluster headaches are the most distinctive of the three types, causing sharp, burning pains. Similar to migraine headaches, cluster headaches are viewed as having a neurological etiology. However, the symptoms of cluster headaches are vastly different from migraines. Watery, red or puffy eyes are all indications of cluster headaches. Additionally, it is common for cluster headaches to involve symptoms on only one side of the head, or behind one eye. In addition to the effects that the condition has on one’s head, however, cluster headaches can also cause restlessness or agitation.
Treating the Seemingly Un-Treatable
Treatments for each type of chronic headache can vary greatly and are also based upon the severity of each condition as well.
Chronic migraines and chronic tension headaches are most frequently treated with over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Some tricyclic antidepressants and beta-blockers are also known to help keep these chronic headaches under control, allowing individuals to live their lives free from the pain and suffering of the symptoms. Additionally, individuals may want to opt for alternative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture or messages, all of which can relax tension and ease the pain associated with the headaches.
Cluster headaches are the exception to the traditional way in which to treat chronic headaches. Because cluster headaches are short-lived in comparison to chronic migraines or chronic tension headaches, medicinal measures that are taken are rarely effective. Some medications that are sometimes used include corticosteroids and antiepileptics. Pain patches that can be administered locally to the areas in which an individual experiences the most discomfort can provide relief, although their effectiveness remains disputed. Additionally, it is thought that some dietary supplements such as Melatonin may aid in relieving the severe pain associated with cluster headaches, although talking to a doctor is the best way to be granted relief.
Coping and Maintaining Control Over Chronic Headache Pain
The way in which an individual reacts to their chronic headache pain is determinative of the outcome that they will have. Maintaining a sense of control over chronic pain is the main way in which to ensure better outcomes through treatment and managing an illness, allowing individuals to cope with their condition and live a fulfilling life.
One way in which to accomplish this is to seek out support. Finding someone to talk to whether it be a good friend, a counselor, a family member or whoever, can be an extremely beneficial way to address the pain of chronic headaches. Retaining all of the frustrations only serves to exacerbate the pain and symptoms common to chronic headaches. By airing trials and tribulations, a feeling of relief may replace all of the fear and anxiety that has come to dictate a person’s life, offering some solace from their condition.
Remaining in control of stress is another crucial element to coping with chronic headache pain. Stress is known to be the leading cause of headache pain. Managing this stress can help avoid intensifying already-existing symptoms of the headaches and avoiding further problems before they really begin. Meditation or yoga is a great option for those who find it difficult to control stress, teaching individuals how to control reactions before applying these reactions to their real life.
Using medications and doctors frequently is a good idea as well. Many people don’t want to be prescribed medications. However, taking prescriptions and dosages assigned by doctors is one of the best ways to address and diminish the debilitating effects of chronic headaches. It is also important to remember how useful a doctor truly is throughout the course of a person’s experience with chronic headaches. The condition of the ailment doesn’t always remain constant, making it more important to always employ an adaptable, personal approach to treating chronic headaches. New medications are also being released throughout the years, meaning that there may be something more effective out there to treat chronic headache discomfort. Regular consultations with a physician can ensure that treatment is up to date, and appropriate for the symptoms being experienced, making living with chronic headaches a little bit simpler.
The Bottom Line of Chronic Headache Pain
Chronic headache pain is not only annoying, but life-altering as well. For those who already experience the symptoms and incapacitating effects of chronic headaches, there is relief. By employing a combination of medicinal and alternative techniques to address chronic headache pain, individuals can better perform their daily tasks and live their lives without the constant fear of another debilitating headache. Although there are no proven solutions, there are remedies to tackle and diminish the effects of chronic headaches that, for some people, are experienced almost every day of the year. There are no cures for chronic headaches, or, at least not yet. For those that truly practice a personalized approach to their pain, however, the future is bright and free from days spent on the sidelines due to chronic headache pain.