It’s frighteningly easy for a simple headache to become chronic. Perhaps it started mild enough to be ignored. Maybe you took a few over-the-counter pain medications and then hurried on with life. However, headaches – even mild ones – shouldn’t be ignored. Not only can these headaches indicate that something in your body needs your attention, but they can escalate into severe or chronic cases.

Two classes of headaches: Primary and secondary

Primary headaches are caused by nerves surrounding the head and neck, or, in some cases, are idiopathic, meaning they have no clear cause. Primary headaches are the most common. Treatment for these types include pain medications, nerve block injections, radiofrequency ablation, or other pain management therapies.

Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying condition or environmental factor of some sort. These types of headaches can indicate that something is happening in the body that requires attention. To treat secondary headaches, it’s necessary to treat the underlying cause. A physician should be able to narrow down the most likely causes of a secondary headache based on your specific symptoms. Here are several potential causes.

Another pain condition

Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread pain, so it’s not surprising that it can also lead to secondary headaches. Because fibromyalgia can be difficult to treat and control, the headaches can be tricky, too. The best way to manage pain from fibromyalgia is to work closely with a pain specialist.

Arthritis, too, may lead to this condition. Arthritis is the degeneration of the cushioning tissues of the joints, which leads to joint pain and swelling. The best way to treat secondary headaches from arthritis, as in fibromyalgia, is to work with a physician or pain specialist very closely.

Heart or vascular issues

A heart problem, stroke, or embolism can all cause a headache, particularly after some sort of physical exertion. If coughing, lifting something heavy, or having sex triggers head pain, it’s important to speak to your physician about it.

Spinal fluid leak

Some headaches, such as one that occurs after sex, worsens when standing or sitting, and lessens when lying down, can be caused by a spinal fluid leak. This occurs when some sort of physical trauma, injury, or medical procedure has caused a puncture in the membrane around the spinal cord. Occasionally, though, no reason can be found for a spinal fluid leak.

The leak allows the spinal fluid to escape, which causes a drop in pressure around the brain and spinal cord. A physician will know best how to treat your spinal fluid leak, but typically treatment involves bed rest and plenty of fluids while the leak heals.

Dental issues

Acute dental disease, bruxism, and temporomandibular jaw disorder (TMD or TMJ) can all cause headaches. This makes it very important that you not only go to the dentist regularly, but that you tell your dentist about any head pain you’re having. If you go to your dentist regularly and brush and floss every day, you probably don’t have acute dental disease – or if you do, you already know it.

Bruxism simply means grinding or clenching the teeth. This may be done only during sleep, but some people also clench or grind their teeth while awake. It isn’t healthy for your teeth and can cause head pain that mimic tension headaches or even migraines. Your dentist can make a splint (similar to a night retainer) that protects your teeth and should reduce any headaches. Bruxism often goes hand-in-hand with TMD.

TMD is a condition relating to issues with the jaw bone and its surrounding musculature. Common symptoms include jaw pain or tenderness and clicking in the jaw. Medications, massage, chiropractic manipulation, or various devices or splints may all help treat the pain that accompanies TMD.

Certain medications

Most medications have a long list of potential side effects, and headache is one of the most common. There are a few medications, however, that are particularly likely to cause a headache, including:

  • Medications with hormones, such as those for birth control or menopause
  • Medications for erectile dysfunction
  • Certain heart or blood pressure medications
  • Vitamins and supplements

However, this does not mean that if you’re suffering from this condition, you should stop taking your pills. Stopping your pills without your doctor’s go-ahead can lead to more serious issues than a headache.

If you suspect that one of your medications is causing headaches, speak to your doctor and explain your concerns. Ask if there’s a different medication you can take, because there are usually several different medications that do similar jobs. A physician-approved lower dosage of your current medication might also help.

Additionally, keep in mind that substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are mild drugs, capable of causing head pain. Track your use of these substances, along with the occurrence of your headaches, to see if any of these are to blame. Remember that some of these, such as caffeine, can cause withdrawal headaches when you first stop taking them, so while it may be uncomfortable to stop using them initially, it might be better for you in the long run.

Sleep problems

Not getting enough sleep can trigger headaches very quickly, so one of the easiest at-home ways to try to treat your headaches is to get a good night’s sleep. Give it a couple nights of seven to eight hours of good sleep before you rule out sleep deprivation as the cause of your headaches.

Sleep disorders can also cause headaches. Chronic insomnia causes sleep deprivation, which, as noted, can lead to headaches. Chronic obstructive sleep apnea, however, can also cause headaches. This condition occurs when the airway collapses or becomes obstructed during sleep. Loud snorers often have sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk of other health issues, like heart problems, so it’s important to get checked out if you suspect you have this condition.

Waking up with a headache, especially if that headache lessens throughout the day, can be a sign that your head pain is caused by a sleep disorder. Talk it over with your physician, and he or she will probably order a sleep study to determine the exact issue and treatment.

If you’re experiencing chronic, new, or worsening headaches, speak to your doctor.

There are dozens of types of headaches with new ones being discovered all the time. Keep detailed record of your symptoms and share it with your physician, and he or she will be able to work with you to find any underlying causes. If you’re pregnant, especially, this condition should never be ignored; most are innocuous, but some can be indicative of serious problems.

Have you experienced secondary headaches?

Image by Graeme Law via Flickr


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