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Understanding Headache -- the Basics

What Causes Headaches?

Headaches strike for many reasons.

Tension headaches are often caused by stress; they may stem from anxiety about work or family life, or there may be some physical factor such as persistent noise. Eyestrain, poor posture, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, or the grinding or clenching of teeth at night can also lead to tension headaches.

Migraines are somewhat more mysterious. Although some think that constricting and swelling of blood vessels are involved, most researchers believe that the headaches begin in the nervous system. Because migraines often run in families, it seems likely that genetics play a role.

A wide range of factors can trigger a migraine attack. Common "triggers" include too much alcohol or caffeine, caffeine withdrawal, various foods or scents, naps, dry winds, changes in altitude or seasons, hormonal fluctuations, birth-control pills, missing a meal, lack of sleep, neck pain, food intolerance, or stuffy rooms. Migraines may also occur in the aftermath of intense emotions such as excitement or anger. Exercise, sexual activity, other types of headaches, or very cold foods can also jump-start a migraine.

Cluster headaches are the most baffling of all. In contrast to migraines, men are much more likely to be diagnosed with cluster headache than women, and the headaches tend to begin between ages 25 and 50. Cluster attacks typically last weeks. Attack-free months generally follow. They are more common in heavy smokers than in nonsmokers. Alcohol consumption, stress, and certain foods play a role in some people, but the root cause is unknown.

Sinus headaches typically result from hay fever and other seasonal allergies, or from a cold or the flu.

Less common causes of headaches may be the result of illnesses that cause fevers, especially meningitis, or as the result of a stroke, sleep deprivation, brain tumor, and very high blood pressure.


WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 18, 2015
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