If you’re like most people, you’ve had at least a few headaches in your life. You may even suffer from them regularly or have chronic conditions that mean they feel like an unwanted but ongoing part of your life.
Regardless of how often you get them or how severe they are, they’re an annoying affliction and worth understanding further. In particular, it pays to know the common causes of headaches so you can take steps to avoid suffering from them as much as possible.
Types and Causes of Headaches
Physicians generally break headaches down into two main types: primary or secondary headaches. Primary headaches are caused by direct issues with pain-sensitive structures in your head or overactivity of structures. These headaches don’t stem from underlying diseases, hence why they’re called ‘primary.’
Some people are more genetically disposed to suffer from this type of headache. Some have chemical activity happening in the brain or issues with head and neck muscles or nerves or blood vessels around the skull that can contribute to primary headaches. A combination of these factors might be involved, too.
Examples of primary headaches include tension and cluster headaches, migraines, and migraines with auras. Less common types generally seen as primary headaches (but that could also be a symptom of an underlying health problem) are exercise, cough, sex, and chronic daily headaches.
Some sufferers find their primary headaches get triggered by lifestyle factors. For example, alcohol, poor posture, stress, lack of or changes in sleep, and skipped meals are causes of headaches. Some foods, especially nitrate-containing processed meats, tend to be a common trigger, too.
Also, people who suffer from many headaches or other chronic pain may find that because they take painkillers often, they get medication overuse headaches.
Secondary headaches stem from underlying medical conditions. These headaches occur when a health issue activates the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. All sorts of different conditions can lead to secondary headaches. Some are severe and life-threatening, while others are mild or minor.
For example, ear, nose, and throat disorders are causes of headaches. Sinus infections brought on by allergic reactions such as hay fever, or cold, flu, or other viral or bacterial infections can lead to sinus headaches. You might wonder, are sinus infections contagious? The ones caused by a virus can be, so try to steer clear of people who might pass on such germs. Similarly, inflammation of the inner ear or tonsillitis are causes of headaches.
Eye problems might be bringing on your headaches, too. If you’re squinting and straining eye muscles to try to see more clearly, or if you have an eye disease such as glaucoma, you can get headaches due to the referred pain from structures in your head. Often, wearing glasses or contact lenses or having eye surgery or other treatment can alleviate the headaches that go with a vision impairment.
If you’re having dental or jaw difficulties, such as misalignment between your upper and lower jaw, missing teeth, dental abscesses, tooth decay, or bruxism (grinding), you may get frequent headaches. The muscle tension in your jaw from problems with your teeth can refer to pain in the face and head. See a dentist for diagnosis of issues and necessary treatment.
Often, causes of headaches come from high stress or tension in the body. Many people get a tension headache due to tight muscles of the upper back, neck, head, and shoulders, which may get exacerbated when the body’s fight or flight response is triggered by emotional or physical stress. Such stress also tends to lower a person’s pain tolerance, making headaches felt more sharply. Poor posture and misalignments of the neck and spine can trigger tension headaches, as can a lack of sleep and exercise and a poor diet.
Some other ailments and factors that can bring on a secondary headache include food and drink triggers, dehydration, hormonal fluctuations, and the use of some medications. You could be getting headaches because of high blood pressure, a stroke, a brain tumor, or trauma to the head or body, such as a blow to the skull or a perforated eardrum. Arthritis and meningitis can cause headaches in some people, as can a blood clot, brain aneurysm, encephalitis, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
As you can see, a wide variety of primary and secondary issues can lead to headaches. If you get this pain frequently or severely, it’s vital to see a medical professional. They can help determine the cause, which may require urgent treatment, and they can help you treat the pain and, hopefully, prevent the headaches from recurring.