Help for Headaches

Sometimes, a Headache is NOT “Just a Headache”

Headaches are a fairly common disorder of the nervous system. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 47 percent of adults experienced a headache at least once within the last year. Sometimes, getting through the day is a challenge; daily rigors of work, family and recreation may seem like enough to cause a splitting headache — genetics can play a big role in headaches, too. Women are especially susceptible to headaches. A recent study found that 26 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 44 can expect to experience a migraine or severe headache during any three-month period. Some estimates have found that women suffer three times as many headaches as men.

For many women, headaches are a constant concern and should be monitored closely and treated to help them lead normal lives. The fact that women experience headaches at an alarming rate is not entirely surprising. Women’s genetics play a large role in headaches; hormones contribute to headaches as can a woman’s menstrual cycle and brain chemistry.

Research analyzed through the Women’s Health Study found that depression is a threatening byproduct of migraine headaches in women. The study analyzed over 36,000 women who had no reported depression when the study started. When the study ended, it found women who reported having migraines have a 40 percent greater chance of developing depression versus women who do not have a history of headaches. Untreated depression can: lead to drug or alcohol addiction, cause strains on relationships, negatively affect mood and thoughts, lead to sleep and eating disorders and impact work habits.

A type of headache more common in men than women is referred to as a “cluster headache” (two to four times as many men have cluster headaches as women). A cluster headache is described as a series of headaches that affects an individual over an extended period or cluster of time anywhere from weeks to months. Cluster headaches occur when a nerve at the base of the brain is activated causing the eye to experience pain, tearing and redness. Potential causes for cluster headaches include seasonal changes (mainly spring and fall), tobacco use and alcohol consumption. Treatment options for those experiencing cluster headaches include medications and, in some cases, surgery.

Some symptoms indicate a headache may be more than “just a headache.”  Strokes can oftentimes present themselves as a sudden and severe headache without an apparent cause. Intense headaches, like migraines, usually develop over an extended period of time; strokes present suddenly. When someone without a history of migraine headaches experiences a sudden and  unusually intense headache, seek immediate treatment — “Time is Brain.”  (See sidebar)

Sudden onset of severe headaches, daily headaches associated with the body’s position or headaches that change in their characteristics are all red flags; seek immediate medical care. Headaches associated with fever and neck rigidity require immediate evaluation as they could indicate meningitis. Consult with your physician or see a specialist if headaches are negatively affecting your health or lifestyle.

Dr. Kirk Kleinfeld is a neurologist at The Brain and Spine Center at St. Luke’s Hospital. To learn more about headaches or strokes and possible treatment options, visit StLukes-StL.com.