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Some clarity on headaches

Speaking about a headache is something 9/10 people can relate to. Vascular headaches, tension headaches, or a mixture of both is usually the most common type experienced.  Most of us try to treat it ourselves. When the self-medication approach fails, the desperate process of identifying the possible cause through eliminating the likely sources of the headaches normally starts.

Besides vascular and tension headaches, the other types of headaches consist of conditions that lead to inflammation, traction or dilation of pain-sensitive structures of the head and neck. Patients are often referred to optometrists to see whether a pair of spectacles can relieve some of the strain. No specific mechanism however exists in the eye itself that causes a headache, except in far-sighted people where there is a spasm of the muscle that focusses the lens.

Some of the headaches that you can look out for:

  • Eye strain headaches have the characteristics of a mild tension headache, generally localised to the brow region. Squinting to try and see better and exposure to bright sunlight, may contribute to these symptoms.
  • A fixed posture and mental concentration combined with prolonged near point tasks also contribute to headaches, especially in computer users.
  • Headaches that occur with change in task demands may reflect stress related to intellectual demands. They are however often attributed to the use of the eyes.
  • Visual headaches always improve with rest.
  • Infrequent attacks of pain in the eye and short, stabbing pain behind the eye is relatively common – however, there is no known cause.

When visiting a health care professional to identify the cause of a headache, try to explain it with as much detail as possible. For example, what makes it worse or better, when do you experience the headaches as well as the quality and intensity of the pain. Headache characteristics can differ substantially and often points to the possible cause:

  • throbbing or pulsing pain points to a blood vessel source
  • burning or aching can be a muscular cause
  • sharp or shooting pain usually originates from a nerve
  • a pressure like sensation has a chamber-derived (e.g. sinus cavity) origin
  • a brain tumour headache is usually dull, aching and intermittent, although it is continuous in some cases.

Always remember that a headache may be a symptom of a serious underlying condition calling for a diagnostic examination and treatment. These cases may require laboratory and radiographic studies and neurological consultation. Luckily not all headaches are caused by unknown medical conditions. Headaches can often be posture and positioning related and relooking your ergonomic setup at your workstation can often have “magical” results.  

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