Everyone has experienced, at some point in their life, the burden of pain that a headache or migraine can cause. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, it has been estimated that almost half of the adult population have had a headache at least once within the last year. Headaches disorders are usually characterized by recurrent headaches. They are often associated with pain, disability, reduced quality of life and financial costs. Headache disorders are a worldwide problem, affecting people of all ages, races, income levels and geographical areas. Headache disorders are under-recognized, under-reported and under-treated by appropriate healthcare providers around the world.
Headaches are classified into primary headache disorders, namely migraine, tension-type headache (TTH), and cluster headache (CH). Headaches can also be caused by or occur secondarily to a number of other conditions (headache attributed to trauma, stroke, meningitis, concussion, etc.), the most common of which is medication-overuse headache (MOH).
In general conversation, migraine is often interchangeably used with headache, but it is actually a type of headache. It often begins at puberty and mostly affects those aged between 35 and 45 years. It is more common in women than men because of hormonal influences. Migraine is often life-long and is characterized by recurrent attacks. Attacks typically include headaches of moderate-to-severe intensity, one-sided, pulsating, and aggravated by physical activity and can last from a few hours to 2-3 days. The feeling of nausea can also be associated with migraine. The frequency of attacks varies between once a week and once a year.
Tension-type headache is the most common primary headache disorder. It often begins during teenage years and affects three women to every two men. It is often triggered by stress or associated with the muscles and boney structures around the neck area. This headache, described as pressure or tightness, often feels like a band around the head, sometimes spreading into or radiating from the neck. Episodic attacks are reported by more than 70% of the global human population and occur on fewer than 15 days per month. Chronic TTH occurs on more than 15 days per month, but affects only 1-3% of adults.
Cluster headache is relatively uncommon and affects less than one in a thousand adults, affecting six men to each woman. Most people experiencing it are in their 20s or older. It is characterized by frequently recurring (up to several times a day), extremely severe and brief headaches, focused around one eye with or without tearing and redness of that eye. The nose can also be congested on the affected side and the eyelid may droop. CH can be episodic or chronic.
Medication overuse headache is the most common secondary headache disorder. It is caused by chronic and excessive use of medication to treat headaches. It may affect up to 5% of human populations, women more than men. It occurs on more days than not, is severe, persistent and often at its worst during waking-up periods.
If you have one of these types of headache disorders, you might notice that certain daily life elements trigger your symptoms. These triggers vary from person to person, and they can include anything from environmental changes to specific types of foods. Other common triggers may include stress, depression and anxiety, hormonal changes, lack of sleep, hunger and alcohol consumption.
It is important to get an accurate diagnosis of your headache and the symptoms, and to seek, appropriate treatment with cost-effective medications, simple lifestyle modifications, changes in your diet, education and physiotherapy treatments.
Consulting a physiotherapist can be beneficial to your symptoms management. The physiotherapist will help you identify the type of headache you are experiencing, guide you in finding the triggering factors and refer you to the right health professional if required. As mentioned above, tight muscles in your head and neck, as well as underlying neck problems can be the cause of your headaches. This can be addressed through physiotherapy treatments using manual therapy, specific exercise training (including, stretching, strengthening, and self-traction), relaxation techniques, education, and modalities to decrease the frequency/onset of the attack and duration/intensity of the attack. Physiotherapy could be a complement or an alternative to medication to resolve, ease or manage the consequences of your headache symptoms.
Headache disorders can significantly impact your ability to function and reduce your overall quality of life. Accurate diagnosis is therefore very important. Working with the appropriate licensed and experienced healthcare provider is the key element in your symptoms management and finding the best treatment plan for you.
Taking charge of your headache is a step towards healing yourself.