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Headaches are a very common problem amongst both men and women. Headaches affect our ability to work, they can affect our sleep and of course cause us to worry. Although headaches can often be distressing and painful, they rarely indicate a serious condition.

Most headaches are benign and are classed as ‘primary headaches’. These include tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches. Headaches also stem from other sources which can be more serious, and these are classed as ‘secondary headaches’. Secondary headaches are often related to hypertension (high blood pressure) and of course to brain tumours. For these reasons, prolonged or severe headaches should always be checked, and the probable cause identified. Below is a little more information about each type of headache, and how you might be able to identify the type you may be suffering with. 

Tension Headaches: These are the most common type of headache and are often mild to moderate in severity. Tension headaches often present as a ‘band-like’ pain around the head and are related to several factors. These include stress, tiredness, poor posture, dehydration, persistent noise and squinting.

Tension headaches generally last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. They can affect anyone, although they do appear to affect women more than men. It’s estimated that 50% of adults in the UK experience this type of headache each month, and a small percentage experience them fifteen times or more each month. Treatment usually involves rest, relaxation, sleep or other de-stressing activities. Improved diet and keeping well hydrated can also have a positive effect, although people do still rely heavily on medication such as aspirin, paracetamol or anti-inflammatories.

Migraines: Often described as throbbing, frontal or one sided, migraines are common and cause a lot of people great concern. Migraines are usually moderate to severe, and can be made worse by physical activity, light or certain smells. Migraines also produce nausea, vomiting, auras, mood changes, visual disturbances, tingling sensations and loss of balance. They are three times more common in females than males. They occur at any age, though usually begin between the ages of 10 and 40, but become less common from the age of 50 to 60.

The cause of migraines is not fully understood, though it is thought to be associated with the arteries within the brain. As these arteries constrict (narrow) and dilate (widen), they could somehow affect nearby pain receptors. However, this theory doesn’t fully explain migraines and research is ongoing. Other causes being studied are genetic components and hormone association such as oestrogen.

Treatment for migraines involve a variety of standard medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, although other medication such as beta blockers, anti-emetics and triptans (which target blood vessels), are also available. There are more ‘natural ways’ to treat migraines, such as avoiding known triggers, of which: caffeine, chocolate, MSG, red wine and sweeteners, are but a few. Other non-medication ways which may be effective are: regular exercising, regulating meal times and the use of relaxation techniques.

Brain Tumours: Tumours are possibly our biggest fear with headaches, though rest assured, because brain tumours are rare. Tumours occur equally in both sexes, though different types can be more associated between men and women. They can appear in any area of the brain, causing symptoms to vary. However, the most common symptoms include increasingly bad headaches, morning headaches, nausea and morning sickness.  . 

Seizures are also a common symptom of brain tumours and can be very frightening. Seizures may present as just a twitching in an arm or leg or can involve the whole body. Despite these symptoms, it is important to remember that brain tumours are rare, and all these symptoms can occur for less serious reasons.

Cluster Headaches: These headaches tend to produce very severe pain around the eye or temple. They also tend to be more one-sided, last 4 hours or less and occur in 6 – 8 week periods. They are less common than migraines, occurring in about 1/1000 people and affect mainly males over 30. Cluster headaches are often accompanied with nasal congestion, tearing of the eye and can be extremely painful. It is not uncommon for sufferers even to have suicidal thoughts!

Treatment: Nicotine and alcohol are thought to be potential triggers so one line of treatment is to reduce these two substances where possible. Following this, most treatments include medications such as nasal sprays, sumatriptan injections, ibuprofen or even oxygen therapy. Finding the right treatment can be difficult and research is ongoing to establish what causes these headaches.

How an osteopath can help: Osteopaths treat a variety of conditions and headaches are commonly seen in most practices. If your headache is due to tension, stress, poor posture or possibly poor mobility from arthritis, then an osteopath can often be a great help. Problems further down the back or around the shoulders may also be  contributing factor to your headache, and an osteopath should be able to identify these issues and treat or advise accordingly. 

In addition to this, most osteopaths will ask about your lifestyle. This could include your diet, exercise regime, work stress, alcohol consumption and smoking habits. These are all areas that could potentially be causing headaches or exacerbating the problem. If your osteopath suspects anything unusual or possibly more serious, he or she can then write to your GP to ask for further investigation.



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…. Ann Wigmore

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