We all experience headaches from time to time. Whenever we fail to drink enough water, whenever we indulge too much in alcohol the night before, or whenever we spend too long staring at a screen we often find ourselves with a headache. At best, a headache is a minor irritation. Nothing that a big glass of water and a few over the counter painkillers can’t solve. At worst, however, headaches can become a serious impediment to your ability to live your best life.
They can distract you from your work, and your home life. If you are self-employed or run your own business, they can directly affect your productivity and thus your profitability. They can prevent you from being able to enjoy the activities that you love. They can drive a steak through the heart of your libido, potentially causing problems in your marriage or your relationship. They can make you grouchy or irritable, turning you someone you don’t want to be. They can make you liable to snap at your work colleagues, your friends or (worse still) your partner and kids.
A headache can be much more than just an irritation, and you need to do more than sweep it under the rug.
A headache is not always just a headache
Headaches usually come and go. But when they become chronic (you experience them regularly) the can be seriously detrimental to your wellbeing, and impinge on your mental health. What’s more, headaches can often be a sign of something way more serious, from hypertension to a brain tumor. In this post, we’ll look at some of the causes of chronic headaches and what you can do about them. First, however, it’s important to know…
When to call your doctor
You pride yourself on your ability to take care of your own health. However, there are times when it’s best to defer to the experts. If your headaches are a symptom of something serious, the longer you leave them undiagnosed, the more potential damage they can do. What’s more, consulting Dr. Google instead of seeking legitimate expert medical advice is a recipe for anxiety and prognostications of doom. The sooner you seek medical intervention, the quicker you can seek appropriate treatment.
As such, you should call your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of the following;
- Headaches developed right after strenuous activities like weightlifting, aerobics, running, or even sex.
- A sudden explosive or violent headache.
- A headache that feels significantly worse than usual if you regularly get headaches.
- A headache that comes with slurred speech, loss or change of vision, loss of balance or mobility, confusion, or memory loss.
- A headache that gets worse over 24 hours.
- A headache that’s accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, nausea, and / or vomiting.
- Headaches that occur after a head injury.
- A severe headache behind one eye, with redness in that eye.
- You are over 50 and have just started getting headaches.
- Your headache results in pain while chewing, and /or weight loss.
- You have a history of cancer and develop a new headache.
- You have an immune disease or you are taking chemotherapy drugs or steroids and experience a new strong headache.
These are extreme circumstances where chronic headaches could be a serious symptom. In most cases, however, a headache is usually a symptom of something more benign. Identifying the cause and taking action will be much more effective in the long term than popping over the counter painkillers and hoping for the best.
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Lack of sleep
It’s a sad fact that too many of us aren’t getting enough sleep. In the US, an estimated 1 in 3 adults aren’t getting enough shut-eye. And this can be seriously detrimental to our wellbeing, as well as exacerbating headaches.
Insufficient sleep and irregular sleep patters are common causes of chronic headaches. The average adult needs 7-8 hours sleep every night, yet many of us struggle to clock in 6. What’s more, many of us assume that as little as 4 hours is enough sleep to stay healthy… which it most certainly isn’t.
Not much is known about the relationship between sleep (or lack thereof) and headaches, but it’s suspected that the key lies in the hypothalamus. Common headaches associated with lack of sleep include cluster headaches and hypnic headaches (which occur when you are asleep and will often wake you up).
Of course, getting enough sleep is easier said than done, especially if you have a stressful life and job. Potential ways in which you can help yourself to drift off at night include;
- Avoid using electronic devices and watching TV close to your bed time. The blue light they emit can
- Try and spend as much of your day as possible with access to natural light to regulate your circadian rhythms.
- Try having a hot bath around an hour before you go to bed for the night. This will lower your core temperature and prevent you from the pverheating that can lead to restless sleep.
Pounding coffee all day every day
You’re busy, you’re stressed, you’re juggling a full work day and the responsibilities that come with raising a family and managing a home. You’re (as discussed above) probably getting by on very little sleep. Your morning cup of joe is the most welcome sight in the world after a restless night’s sleep. But did you know that when you follow up your morning coffee with another, then another, then another, it can exacerbate your headaches. For starters, coffee dehydrates you, and this can be a common cause of chronic headaches. Secondly, all that caffeine narrows the blood vessels in the brain, and when they reopen again as your triple shot latte starts to wear off this can be a cause of pain.
What’s more, lurching from coffee to coffee is actually more likely to leave you feeling sleepy than energized. When you drink coffee after coffee it blocks the brain’s receptors to the neurotransmitter adenosine. This disrupts your body’s natural rhythms and makes you feel sleepy. So, invariably, you chug another espresso and the cycle begins again.
Try switching out every other coffee for a green tea and a big glass of water. Or, if you really can’t live without the taste and smell of coffee in your day, you should really consider switching to decaff.
Finally, those who have stressful lives, unhealthy diets and a little extra weight often find themselves getting chronic headaches. This is often usually associated with hypertension (high blood pressure). If hypertension isn’t rectified in a timely manner, headaches could be the least of your worries.
Finding ways to mitigate and relieve stress, cutting caffeine, getting more exercise and switching to a wholefoods, plant-based diet are all proven methods of mitigating and even reversing hypertension.