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Why Frequent Headaches Hurt

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Why Does it Hurt? continued...

The bones of the skull and tissues of the brain itself, however, never hurt, because they lack pain-sensitive nerve fibers.

The ends of these pain-sensitive nerves, called nociceptors, can be stimulated by stress, muscular tension, dilated blood vessels, and other triggers of headache. Once stimulated, a nociceptor sends a message up the length of the nerve fiber to the nerve cells in the brain, signaling that a part of the body hurts. The message is determined by the location of the nociceptor. A person who suddenly realizes "My toe hurts," is responding to nociceptors in the foot that have been stimulated by the stubbing of a toe.

A number of chemicals help transmit pain-related information to the brain. Some of these chemicals are natural painkilling proteins called endorphins, Greek for "the morphine within." One theory suggests that people who suffer from severe headache and other types of chronic pain have lower levels of endorphins than people who are generally pain free.

When Should You See a Physician?

Not all headaches require medical attention. Some result from missed meals or occasional muscle tension and are easily remedied. But some types of headache are signals of more serious disorders, and call for prompt medical care. These include:

  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Sudden, severe headache associated with a stiff neck
  • Headache associated with fever
  • Headache associated with convulsions
  • Headache accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness
  • Headache following a blow on the head
  • Headache associated with pain in the eye or ear
  • Persistent headache in a person who was previously headache free
  • Recurring headache in children
  • Headache which interferes with normal life
  • Change in usual headache pattern

A headache sufferer usually seeks help from a primary care provider. If the problem is not relieved by standard treatments, the patient may then be referred to a neurologist. Additional referrals may be made to psychologists.

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

Reviewed by Lily Jung, MD on December 01, 2006
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