What are Headaches?

Headaches are a very common problem, with as much as 15% of the U.S. population suffering from recurring headaches. Headaches are described as a pain above the shoulders, in the upper neck, the base of the skull, the head, or face. This pain may be generalized in these regions or it may affect a specific area. Severe headaches may also be associated with other physiological symptoms, ranging from nausea to light-sensitivity. Recurring, or chronic, headaches cause ongoing pain and discomfort, sometimes beginning with an extremely sharp, stabbing, acute pain that may begin suddenly. Some headaches may be episodic, occurring consistently at certain times, while others are difficult to predict.

Although headaches often feel as though they are originating from deep within the brain, the brain itself does not contain any pain receptors. This means that the pain is not physically originating from inside the brain. The source of the pain is some form of damage to the surrounding structures, such as the skull, blood vessels, subcutaneous tissues, muscles, nerves, cavities (such as sinuses), or sensory organs such as the eyes or ears. This could result from an injury, disease, or inflammation of these tissues. When the nerve cells that sense pain receive this information, the brain interprets the pain as being within the brain. Headaches can range from an annoyance or distraction to a debilitating pain that interferes with daily activity and quality of life.

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Headaches are classified by a number of factors. Headaches without an underlying cause (e.g., trauma or physical damage) are referred to as primary headaches.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches are the most common form of primary headache. They typically have a single source or cause, although the root cause is not always readily identifiable. Although anyone can get migraine headaches, women are at a three-fold higher risk than men. This is primarily due to chronic migraine pain associated with the menstrual cycle. For women with this type of migraine, the cause is known and the onset may be predictable.

Migraine headaches are often recurring and associated with severe, intense, throbbing pain. This pain is often felt near the eyes, primarily concentrated on one side, but it may also spread to the face or head. Associated symptoms include sensory sensitivity, particularly with regard to light, sounds, and scents. The intense pain may be associated with nausea and vomiting.

The symptoms associated with migraine headaches may pass within a few hours or can persist for several days, depending on the individual and on treatment. Typically, there is a progression of these symptoms through four characterized phases.

  1. The first phase is the prodrome phase. This phase precedes the pain and can be associated with mental and emotional changes, food cravings, drowsiness, frequent urges to use the restroom, thirst, or irritability.
  2. The second phase is the aura phase. This phase is associated with neurological symptoms or an aura shortly before the onset of pain. Not all migraine sufferers experience auras, which