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What causes chronic headaches?

Lone Star Neurology
Medically reviewed by Lone Star Neurology
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Lone Star Neurology
Medically reviewed by Lone Star Neurology

Most people have a headache from time to time. They simply take an over the counter analgesic or if the pain is mild enough deal with it and go on about their lives. These are the lucky ones. People who suffer from chronic headaches are an entirely different category. For them, headaches are a near constant part of their lives and can have a direct impact on their quality of life.

According to the latest available numbers, 18 percent of Americans suffer severe headaches multiple times a month and in excess 10 percent more than once a week. In fact, according to the NIH (National Institute of Health), chronic headaches are a major reason cited for days missed at work or school as well as visits to the doctor. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, it is estimated that up to 44 percent of all emergency room and doctor’s office visits are related to headaches.

What Makes Chronic Headaches Different?

The difference between a chronic headache sufferer and someone with a common headache is the frequency with which they suffer. The Medical definition of chronic is a long-lasting, frequently occurring or slowly progressing condition. Chronic headache victims may experience mild to severe pain anywhere from several times a day to a weekly basis or they may have persistent headaches that simply will not go away.

Types of Chronic Headaches and Their Causes

There are two classifications of chronic headaches; primary headaches which aren’t a symptom of an underlying disease and secondary headaches which are part of a larger health problem.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches can be caused by a number of different reasons most of which are associated with the nerves or blood vessels surrounding your skull, the muscles of your head and neck, Chemical activity in the brain or some combination of these factors. There are also some people who seem to have a genetic propensity for having certain types of primary headaches.

The most common primary headaches are:

  • Cluster headache– Cluster headaches are characterized by normally only affecting one side of the head most often around the eyes. They occur cyclically with attacks coming on several times a day. These cluster cycles can last for days, weeks or even months. The pain associated with them can be quite severe even exceeding migraine levels at times. After they pass there is normally a period of calm before they begin again. Cluster headaches have no known cause but seem to be associated with alcohol and tobacco use. During cluster cycles, patients experience extreme sensitivity to both nicotine and alcohol beyond their normal levels.
  • Migraine– Migraine headache suffers experience severe pain and throbbing sensations most often on just one side of their head accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound. They also often experience nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, upset stomach or belly pain. Bouts can last from four hours to several days and are disabling in nature. The exact cause of migraine headaches is unknown but there seems to be a genetic factor associated with them. Fatigue, bright lights, weather changes, and other factors have all been found to act as triggering mechanisms.
  • Migraine with aura-these headaches are a type of migraine and follow a similar pattern to regular migraine headaches but they also have a neurological component to them.They are often accompanied by sensations of being touched and visual disturbances like flashes of light or wavy visual patterns. As with regular migraines, aura migraines have no known cause and they only differ as to the severity of the symptoms.
  • Tension headache– Tension Headaches are the most common type of chronic headache that people suffer. They, as a general rule, affect both sides of the head, cause mild to moderate pain and may be accompanied by a pressing or tightening feeling. Tension headaches, as the name implies, are brought on mainly by stress. Insufficient rest, poor posture excessive caffeine consumption, low iron, hunger and fatigue can all be contributing factors.

Types of Secondary Chronic Headaches

Secondary headaches can be triggered by a wide variety of causes ranging from lifestyle choices like the consumption of alcohol and smoking to severe neurological and pathological diseases. The best advice is to consult your physician if you are experiencing unexplained headaches on a regular basis.

It is estimated that chronic headaches cost American employers in excess of $13 billion dollars a year due to absenteeism and medical expenses. This nothing though compared to the suffering that chronic headache patients have to endure. We understand the pain and want to help. If you suffer from chronic headaches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area contact Lone Star Neurology where we put our patients first.

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