Family Health Guide

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Headaches: Symptoms

Tension headaches: There’s usually a dull, non-throbbing pain on both sides of your head. You may also experience a vice-like sensation in your forehead, temples or the back of your head and/or neck. The pain doesn’t worsen with physical activity, and you won’t have nausea or sensitivity to light or noise. This type of headache often co-exists with migraine.

If you get tension headaches 15 or more days per month, you probably have what’s known as chronic tension headaches. Chronic sufferers tend to wake up with a headache, and are more likely to experience insomnia, weight loss, dizziness and poor concentration.

Migraine: What starts as a dull ache turns into a throbbing sensation on one side of your head. You may also have nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise. About one in five sufferers have what’s known as migraine with aura, meaning they experience visual disturbances like light flashes, blind spots and zigzag lines before their headache begins. The pain is usually moderate or severe. Most migraine patients suffer from two attacks per month, but some get only one a year, while others get them weekly, says Merle Diamond, M.D., co-director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago.

Menstrual migraine: About 60 percent of women who get migraines have an attack before, during or immediately after their period—or during ovulation. The headaches typically occur when estrogen levels drop. “Women who suffer from migraines tend to have prolonged, harder-to-treat episodes prior to their periods,” says Dr. Diamond.      

Pregnancy migraine: Some women get migraines for the first time during pregnancy—possibly because of the abrupt hormonal changes, says Dr. Diamond. They tend to persist after you give birth (they may revolve around how well your baby sleeps or your menstrual cycle, for instance). About 85 percent of women who already suffer from migraines get some relief from the attacks during pregnancy, according to Dr. Diamond. That’s probably because hormone levels stabilize after the first trimester. About 50 to 60 percent of migraine sufferers go into remission during the first trimester; another 30 percent stop having the headaches during the second trimester; and another 4 to 5 percent are headache-free in the third. You’re especially likely to experience a remission during pregnancy if you tend to get migraines around your period.

Caffeine withdrawal: If you consume a lot of caffeine and then try to quit cold turkey, you may experience migraine-like symptoms—a throbbing headache that’s accompanied by nausea and vomiting. It’s better to reduce your intake gradually. You might start by substituting decaf for one-quarter of your caffeinated brew, then cut back to one-half decaf after five days, recommends Dr. Diamond.