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Headache Basics

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What Causes Headaches? continued...

In some cases, the headaches may be the result of a blow to the head (trauma) or rarely, a sign of a more serious medical condition.

Common causes of tension headaches or chronic nonprogressive headaches include emotional stress related to family and friends, work, or school; alcohol use; skipping meals; changes in sleep patterns; excessive medication use; tension and depression. Other causes of tension headaches include eyestrain and neck or back strain due to poor posture.

Headaches can also be triggered by specific environmental factors that are shared in a family's household, such as exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes, exposure to certain allergens, or eating certain foods. Stress, pollution, noise, lighting, and weather changes are other environmental factors that can trigger headaches for some people.

Too much physical activity can also trigger a migraine in both adults and children.

Be sure to consult a doctor to find out what is causing your headaches.

Do Children Outgrow Headaches?

Headaches may improve as children get older. The headaches may disappear and then return later in life. By middle school, many boys who have migraines outgrow them, but in girls, migraine frequency increases because of hormone changes. Migraines in adolescent girls are three times more likely to occur than in boys.

How Are Headaches Evaluated and Diagnosed?

The good news for headache sufferers is that once a correct headache diagnosis is made, an effective treatment plan can be started.

If you have headache symptoms, the first step is to go to your doctor. He or she will perform a complete physical exam and a headache evaluation. During the headache evaluation, your headache history and description of the headaches will be evaluated. You will be asked to describe your headache symptoms and characteristics as completely as possible. It is important to provide your doctor with a list of things that cause the headache, aggravate the headache, and things that you have done to relieve a headache. Keeping a headache diary can help your doctor diagnose your headache type.

For most headache sufferers, special diagnostic tests will not be necessary. However, a headache evaluation may include a CT scan or MRI if a structural disorder of the central nervous system is suspected. Both of these tests produce cross-sectional images of the brain that can reveal abnormal areas or problems. Skull X-rays are not helpful. An EEG (electroencephalogram) is also unnecessary unless you have experienced a loss of consciousness with a headache.

If your headache symptoms become worse or become more frequent despite treatment, ask your doctor for a referral to a headache specialist. If you need more information, contact one of the organizations in the resource list for a list of member doctors in your state.

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