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Why You Still Get Headaches

Could it be your pain pills? That cheese sandwich? Learn about eight common headache causes and how to find relief from your migraine.

1. You Think It's Tension continued...

It's a tension headache if the pain's on both sides of your head; there's no nausea or sensitivity to light, sound, or odor; and it doesn't get worse with regular activities like walking.

Real pain relief: Despite these seemingly neat divisions, experts now believe that the two headache types may have their roots in the same mechanism inside your brain — that shifting brain chemicals play a role in tension headaches, just as they do in migraines. If you write off your pain as "just a tension headache — not worth seeing the doctor for," you could be suffering more than you need to. Address it, and you might even become headache-free: "Strategies to control the mechanism behind migraine can effectively prevent whatever type of headache you tend to experience," says David Buchholz, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

2. You Blame Your Sinuses

Head pain plus congestion, a runny nose, and facial pressure feels like sinus trouble. But don't swallow that decongestant just yet. In one multicenter study of 2,991 adults who thought they had sinus headaches, researchers discovered a whopping 88 percent really had migraines.

The confusion is understandable. When the trigeminal nerve — the brain's superhighway for migraine pain signals — is activated during a migraine, it can cause sinus symptoms like congestion, too, Dr. Buchholz explains. And weather changes that bring on sinus pain — shifts in temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure — also trigger migraines. "But sinus remedies containing decongestants just make things worse," warns Dr. Buchholz. "When the decongestant wears off, blood vessels in your head expand again, and your headache gets worse."

Real pain relief: If you have head pain and facial pressure — but no fever or greenish or yellow discharge — you may be having a migraine, not a sinus attack. Talk to your doctor. Lifestyle changes could prevent future headaches or, if that's not enough, you may need medication.

3. You Pop Pain Pills

Taken too often, pain meds, even over-the-counter varieties, can be setting you up for nonstop headaches. In one new German study of 7,417 women and men, half of those with chronic migraines had medication-overuse headaches. Other experts estimate that two out of three people who get frequent headaches (tension or migraine) are stuck in this pain-pills-pain cycle.

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