Headaches are such a common malady that we sometimes forget that they aren’t normal. Most healthy people without a diagnosed condition should not be suffering headaches frequently enough to consider it a regular thing.
Severe, unusual, rapid-onset headaches should always be cause for alarm and may warrant a trip to the ER if they are accompanied by fever, vomiting, limited mobility, or occur after hitting your head. A “thunderclap headache” or a headache that affects more than one person should also raise red flags, as they may indicate an aneurysm or toxic environment (mold, carbon monoxide leak), respectively.
Occasional low-to-moderate intensity headaches are normal, and can be caused by many factors:
- Lack of sleep
- Poor quality of sleep (sometimes connected with OSA)
- Caffeine or nicotine withdrawal, changes in medication
- Hormonal changes
- Colds and allergies (sinus congestion)
- Tight headwear, loud noises, or other controllable external factors
Stress/tension headaches are fairly common. Their exact cause is unknown, but it’s theorized that physical and emotional stress and exhaustion can lead to the muscles that cover the skull to become overtaxed and inflamed and begin to spasm. The muscles at the base of the skull and at the temples are particularly prone to this behavior.
Sometimes patients with undiagnosed TMD mistakenly categorize their head and temple pain as a “stress headache” and assume there’s not much they can do about it. (This is the reason why I put the word “headaches” at the top of our website! Raising awareness of this common jaw condition has helped countless people cure their previously un-curable headache problem!)
An unfortunate problem with dealing with headaches is that they can be so subjective. A low intensity headache for one person can be just as indicative of a medical problem as a severe one is for someone else. Pain thresholds vary, and once you’ve gotten used to headaches being a regular facet of life, you may be more likely to ignore signs that something more serious is going on.
When It’s Not a Tension Headache
The problem with tension headaches and their “unknown cause” is that their name makes it easy for us to blame any mysterious headache on stress. Everyone experiences stress; it’s part of what makes us human. But you can’t go blaming every headache on stress, especially when there are treatments available for headaches caused by other factors.
For example, some headaches can be caused by allergies, even in the absence of other symptoms. You don’t need to have a runny nose or feel congested to have a sinus headache. If your headache tends to get worse when you bend over, this can be a sign of a sinus headache, which can be treated with decongestants and/or allergy meds.
Or take migraines, for example. Not every migraine sufferer is going to experience the same symptoms, especially when it comes to the visual disturbances that are unique to this condition. Migraines can cause light sensitivity and affect your vision—but not everyone will notice these details when they are in extreme pain, especially if the headaches are fairly uncommon.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong if you get into the habit of ignoring headaches. You may have a treatable condition, and seeing a doctor may help you better understand the cause of your pain. You also may be more likely to ignore changes in your symptoms, which can be dangerous if the headache is a sign of a serious medical condition, such as brain tumor, aneurysm, meningitis, or temporal arteritis.
We learn more and more about headaches all the time, and the specific symptoms of your headache can help your doctor identify a possible cause.
Make an appointment with your doctor if:
- You take painkillers for a headache on most days.
- You need more than the recommended dose of OTC medicine to relieve the pain.
- You experience two or more headaches per week.
Chronic headaches are defined as headaches that occur at least 15 days per month, for at least a three-month period. If this sounds like you or someone you know, and you aren’t already being treated by a doctor—make an appointment!
About the Author: Dr. Mickiewicz owns a private practice in Sacramento and lectures across the nation on TMD treatments. He is a diplomate of the American Academy of Pain Management and holds membership in many professional associations for dentistry, sleep medicine, and TMD. In addition, Dr. Mick, as his patients call him, founded Pacific Orofacial Pain Consultants, a team of experts in various disciplines, who tackle the issue of TMD pain and treatment, to help sufferers find relief from chronic pain. To talk with Dr. Mick, call his Sacramento dental office at 916-469-9178.