There are headaches and then there are headaches. If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with migraines, you know the difference. Regardless of whether it starts with nausea, light sensitivity or neck pain, a migraine can be debilitating, can linger for days and can lead to everything from medications to doctor visits. Even if you don’t suffer from migraines, millions of Americans live with chronic headaches that occur daily. Migraines and chronic headaches are one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, affecting people of any age and affecting women more than men.
There are some key differences, however, between headaches and migraines. A headache is technically defined as pain in any region of the head. And while we all have headaches from time to time, if your headaches are becoming a hassle, it’s time to talk to your doctor. The Mayo Clinic suggests scheduling a visit with your doctor if you experience headaches that occur more often than usual, are more severe than usual, worsen or don’t improve with over-the-counter medications, or if they keep you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities.
There also are many different types of headaches. Some of the most common are tension, hypnic, cluster and, of course, migraines. One way you can help your doctor figure out what is happening is to keep a journal of triggers and symptoms of your headaches, as well as how often and what time of day they occur. For severe or chronic headaches, additional tests may be performed such as a CT scan, MRI, EEG, eye exam, spinal tap, X-ray of sinuses and lab tests.
“Most people who get chronic headaches probably have a migraine,” says Blount Memorial Physicians Group neurologist Dr. Christine Hagen, a United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties-certified headache specialist. Migraines are a collection of symptoms that can include head pain, nausea, light and sound sensitivity, or throbbing on one side worse than the other. According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines affect 39 million people in the United States. Women between the ages of 18-50 are most often affected, but headaches and migraines can affect anyone at any age. The World Health Organization ranks migraine as the third most common medical disorder on the planet.
Migraines are usually a genetic disease, and can be triggered by different things for different people, including a certain smell, taste, light or sound. They also can become a chronic condition. “By definition, chronic migraines are 15 or more headache days per months with only eight having migraine features such as nausea, vomiting, light and/or sound sensitivity,” Hagen said.
You should see a neurologist if your headache lasts for more than a day or two, if your headaches come on suddenly, if head pain is worsened by straining, if the headaches start early in the morning, or if you have vision changes or seizure with your headaches. Although there is no cure for migraines, preventative medicines can help. Getting into a routine of regular sleep, food and exercise can be beneficial, as well. How your migraines are treated will depend on the type and intensity of the migraine, as well as your individual wants and needs.
“Some patients report preventative medications have been life-changing and have greatly improved their quality of life,” Hagen says. “My office really tries to work with patients to treat them in ways that aligns with their values and preferences.”
For more information about treatments for chronic headaches and migraines, or to make an appointment with Dr. Hagen, call 865-238-6471.