Headaches are one of the most common complaints affecting people today.
For some, headaches are nothing more than a minor annoyance. For others, they can cause severe debilitating pain.
Regardless of the severity, very few of us will be lucky enough to go through life without experiencing headache pain.
It has been estimated that 90% of adults will experience headache pain at some point in their life.
What is causing my headache?
There is no ‘one cause’ for headache pain.
In fact, the diagnosis of the different types of headaches can be quite tricky.
Interestingly, the brain itself cannot feel pain – complaining that your “brain hurts” is clearly putting the blame for your pain in the wrong place!
In fact, most headaches are related to the physical structure of the head and neck, not the ‘brain’ itself.
Headache pain can come from….
- muscles – knots, trigger points and painful spasms cause headaches.
- nerves – cranial and spinal nerves supplying the head, neck and shoulders can be the source of headaches.
- blood vessels – the large arteries and veins of the head and neck can dilate or spasm leading to head pain.
- discs – narrowing, deterioration and bulging (herniation) discs can contribute to headaches.
- joints – arthritis, sprains (whiplash), strains, stiffness and misalignment.
- meninges – the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord can become inflamed through trauma or infection leading to headache pain.
- sinuses – pressure from fluid within the sinus cavities can lead to pain behind the eyes, in the forehead and around the nose.
- TMJ dysfunction (temporomandibular joint) – misalignment and muscle tension can affect the joint between the jaw and the skull leading to headache pain.
- brain injuries – yes, I know I said that the brain itself cannot feel pain. However, head injuries can lead to swelling within the skull which can irritate pain sensitive structures like the cranial nerves and meninges.
As you can see, there are many pain sensitive structures in the head and neck that can be responsible for headache pain.
However, there are usually irritating factors that trigger the headache in the first place
Trauma to the head or neck can cause headaches through injury to the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, discs, spinal joints, meninges and brain. Whiplash injuries and concussions are unfortunate examples of trauma causing head pain.
Food allergies, food sensitivities and chemical sensitivities can lead to vascular headache (involving the arteries that supply blood to the brain).
Migraines are ‘vascular headaches’ consisting of two phases. The first phase is caused by dilation of blood vessels resulting in an increase in blood flow to the brain. The is often refered to as the ‘aura’.
The second phase is characterized by constriction of the blood vessels – a reduced flow of blood causing the ‘headache’ phase.
Caffeine, tyramine (cheese and red wine), nitrates and nitrites (preserved meats), MSG (packaged foods or take out foods), artificial sweeteners (Aspartame and NutraSweet) and food colouring are all notorious for causing headaches.
Stress is probably one of the most common causes of headache. Stress can cause tension within the muscles of the head, neck, shoulder and jaw, often leading to muscle tension type headaches.
Hormonal changes resulting in a drop in estrogen levels during a women’s menstrual cycle has been linked to headaches that follow a regular monthly pattern.
Medications including hormone replacement therapy and overuse of headache medication can be the cause of headache pain.