So, what is a headache?

The vast majority of us will have suffered some sort of headache at some point in our lives, but how many of us know what a headache is exactly? Or which one we are suffering from?

‘Headache’ is a catch all term for what are in fact several distinct different types. Most headaches that we will experience (that is, not caused by an underlying illness) will fall into one of the three primary types: tension type headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches.

Tension type headaches can feel like an aching, tight pressure or pressing pain in your head. This can be around the whole head, on the sides, or at the back of your head and neck. The pain may feel like a tight band around your head, and your neck muscles may also feel tight.

Migraines are less common than tension type headaches, and often feel a lot more severe. They’re characterised as a throbbing pain at the front or the sides of the head. Migraines can also come with a number of other unpleasant symptoms, such as painful sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting.


Cluster Headaches are a rare form of headache that can be experienced in ‘clusters’, of a few weeks or months at a time. These are extremely painful, usually focusing on the area around and behind one eye, causing intense pain, as well as a blocked/runny nose, and red, watering eyes[1].


What causes a headache?

There are certain triggers associated with all types of headaches, such as stress, tiredness, and particular foods and drinks. However, different types have different causes, and can be a result of different factors. Migraines are thought to be caused by temporary changes in the chemicals and blood vessels in the brain, but they can be very hard to predict, both in terms of frequency, and as to who is susceptible[2]. Similarly, scientists are still learning lots more about cluster headaches,whichare thought to be caused by a widening of the blood vessels in the brain, caused by a part of the brain (the hypothalamus) releasing certain chemicals. Interestingly, eight out of ten sufferers of cluster headaches are male, and almost all are smokers[3].

A lot more is understood about tension type headaches, which are associated with the muscles around the head, neck and face. When these muscles are strained substances called prostaglandins are released at the site of the muscle strain that stimulate pain receptors, causing you to feel the headache. So when this happens, it serves as a warning that your body is being damaged. The pain alerts us to act quickly to try to prevent further damage. Several triggers are believed to be the causes of tension type headaches. These include: stress, anxiety and poor posture, so a headache could even be caused by sitting in an uncomfortable position. Bright sunlight, loud noises, dehydration and squinting may be also be triggers of a tension type headache[4].

What can you do?

There are several measures you can take that can help. They include relaxation techniques, improving your posture and avoiding triggers that may be causing your headache. If you believe you are suffering from migraines or cluster headaches, then seek advice from a medical professional, but if you think you might be suffering from a tension type headache, you may also wish to consider using pain relief.

Since prostaglandins can be released as a result of muscle strain in tension type headaches and contribute to pain generation, inhibiting their production can help. Nurofen is an over the counter anti-inflammatory/analgesic product that contains ibuprofen as its active ingredient. Ibuprofen inhibits the formation of prostaglandins in the body, including in muscles like those around your head and neck

Finally, remember that if you are in any doubt about what to do for your headache, always seek professional help from doctors and/or pharmacists. If the headache has come on following a head injury, becomes severe or you're experiencing visual problems, fever, nausea or slurred speech, contact your doctor straight away.







This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.

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