COLUMBIA, Mo. - According to the National Headache Foundation, nearly half of Americans experience some form of headache each year. In the United States, more than 37 million people have been diagnosed with migraine, and health experts believe another 37 million suffer from the condition but have gone undiagnosed.
"It is interesting to note that the brain itself cannot feel pain," said Niranjan Singh, M.D., a neurologist who specializes in headache and directs University Hospital's Missouri Stroke Program. "It's actually the tissue, vessels and nerves in the head and neck that, when aggravated, cause the pain we associate with headache or migraine."
There are two main categories of headache, and they are classified as primary and secondary headaches. A secondary headache can be triggered by conditions such as infections, fever, head injuries and sinus pressure. A primary headache is not associated with another medical condition.
"Of the primary headaches, there are three main types: tension, migraine and cluster headaches," said Brandi French, M.D., a vascular neurologist with University Hospital's Missouri Stroke Program who also specializes in headache and migraine. "Primary headaches are unique, and that is what causes them to be so concerning and frightening for some people. There is so much more happening than just pain in the head when we talk about primary headaches."
- Tension headaches are caused by muscular strains in the head and neck. They also can be caused by emotional stress.
- Tension headaches usually are dull, steady, aching pains on both sides of the head.
- Cluster headaches occur repeatedly over a period of weeks or even months. The pain they produce usually occurs on one side of the head, around or near the eye.
- Migraine headaches can be caused by reduced blood flow to the vessels that cover the brain. Symptoms of migraines include sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, vomiting and an intense throbbing pain that usually is on one side of the head.
"The good news for those who suffer from chronic headache pain is that once a correct diagnosis is made, an effective treatment plan can be started," Singh said.
Most headache pain can be treated with over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. There also are daily medications that are available through prescription that are designed to work on a variety of phases of the headache to prevent chronic headaches or alleviate the pain.
"Primary headaches such as migraine and clusters are preventable," said French. "Basic lifestyle changes can be very beneficial in preventing these types of headaches. Regular meals, regular sleep and regular exercise - aerobic exercise is one the most powerful migraine preventives - all go a long way in prevention.
"There are also some medications that can help reduce recurring headaches such as migraines," she said. "Because many people with primary headaches can feel the headache coming on, or experience an aura, I do tell my patients that the earlier they take their medication for pain in the migraine phase, the more successful they'll be at averting the full blown migraine."
Both Singh and French suggest that making an appointment with a specialist could be very beneficial when migraines cannot be controlled with simple over-the-counter medications, or when the migraine and the pain associated with the headache interferes with a person's ability to carry on with his or her normal routine at work or school.
To make an appointment with a University neurologist, please call (573) 882-1515.