What causes headaches?

Nearly every other person in the world had a headache at least once last year and we still don’t know why we get them. That’s likely because there are about 200 types of headaches, though the severity can greatly differ. Do you suffer from headaches often? Any idea what triggers yours?

We’re going to look at three headache types to explain why some of us tend to get headaches more often than others. For instance, 52% of people will suffer from a tension-type headache at some point in their life, 18% from a migraine and only 4% will have to deal with chronic daily headaches. Have you experienced any of these types of headaches?

There are also secondary headaches that are triggered by medication overuse or side effects, neck pain, as well as, sinus or dental problems. Fortunately these secondary types of headaches are more treatable if the predisposing problem can be handled with properly.

Let’s now take a look at what causes the three very concerning headache types to try to prevent the problem in the future.

Tension-type headache (TTH)

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TTH is characterised by a dull, non-pulsating feeling of pain on both sides of the head. The name is based on the false belief that it was caused by tight muscles. However, a TTH occurs in episodes that can last for hours or even days yet there isn’t any associated nausea, light or sound sensitivity experienced with other headaches.

There is also a form of chronic TTH though it is less common. It is diagnosed when the person experiences at least 180 days with a headache per year; it is just there all the time.

So what causes this form? Genetics do explain some of the risk of having this condition. In fact, if your immediate family member has the condition, your chances of have TTH increase threefold. As well, chronic TTH is more strongly associated with higher psychological distress though finding vary about whether there is a cause or effect of having disabling headaches. Overall, there are still many unknowns and disagreements about how the pain is produced for TTH sufferers. The most attractive hypothesis is that multiple pain inputs add up and produce a sensitive tension on a nerve, which is then registers as pain usually distributed on the forehead, temple and back of the head. There is no one driving mechanism that causes this headache.



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According to various studies, migraines represent the sixth most disabling condition around the world. Those who suffer from migraines know all too well the associated feeling of nausea and light sensitivity. Unlike TTH though, migraines are easier to diagnose.

Migraines are caused by a dysfunctional regulation of the tone of blood vessels inside the skull. Some individuals are more prone to migraines because of their calcium channels in their nerve membranes which prompts overactive signals in the brain. This mean different environment or internal triggers can prompt overactive reactions resulting in headaches, nausea or light or sound sensitivity. When someone has a migraine attack, the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) levels rapidly rise resulting in a pain-inducing signal in the body and when the levels fall, the headaches goes away. There is still uncertainty about where the extra CGRP comes from.


Chronic daily headache

This type of headache is associated with a constant, daily pounding in the temples and piercing pain above the eyes. A chronic daily headache (CDH) begin as an episode tension-type headache or migraine but than manifests into a continuous headache that lasts for a large part of each day. There are a few rare headache types that may cause CDH though it will require a diagnosis from a neurologist or pain specialist.

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The most common explanation why TTH or migraines turn into chronic headaches is due to medication overuse. Accordingly, the best solution is to avoid long-term use of codeine for headaches. This is because our threshold can change and if it becomes too low, the bar is lowered for triggering a migraine attack.


Tell us, do you suffer from headaches?