Migraines and Headaches Overview

Tension Headaches, Cluster Headaches, and Migraines

There are a few types of headaches. Is yours the dull pain that comes from a tension headache, or is it the forceful pounding, throbbing, and nausea from a migraine? Getting good headache treatment starts with identifying which type of headache you have.

Types of Headache
There are three main types of headaches: tension-type, cluster, and migraine.

Many structures surrounding the brain sense pain, particularly tension in muscles, and changes in your blood vessels. However, the brain itself has no pain sensing nerves, and you probably have a headache as the surrounding tissues report their discomfort.

Tension headaches often result from straining muscles that cover your skull, or your face or neck muscles. They can also occur when the blood vessels that circulates in your head, face, and neck open. Stress, exercise, and medication are just some things that can make your blood vessels open and give you a short-term tension headache.

Headache pain from tension headaches usually comes on gradually, and then clears up in a few hours. If your tension headaches are severe or occur regularly, you should see your doctor. However, most headaches are just a part of life and no cause for concern.

If you experience a cluster headache, the sharp pain will occur suddenly, and concentrate behind one eye. Headache experts attribute these sudden headaches to certain medications, smoking, heavy alcohol use, and problems with a section of your brain called the hypothalamus.

Migraine Headaches: Symptoms
More than 60 million American adults report experiencing a migraine, and they affect women at a rate 3 times higher than men.1 Most people with migraines experience their first migraine as an adult, but children and teenagers can fall victim to them, too.

A pounding, throbbing, pulsating or deeply aching headache, nausea, and immobilizing pain are the main symptoms of migraine headaches. Other common symptoms may include:

  • one-sided blind spots and blurred vision
  • sensitivity to light, noise, or odors
  • fatigue and confusion
  • feeling cold or sweaty
  • a stiff or tender neck
  • light-headedness

About 20%  of people with migraines experience an aura lasting 15 to 20 minutes prior to the onset of the actual migraine.1,2 The most common aura is visual where people experience blind spots, flashing lights, and glowing zigzagging forms. Auras also involve other senses, such as numbness or a tingling feeling. They may even affect speech and confuse the migraine victim.

Learn more about migraine and headache symptoms.

Migraine Causes
Medical experts are not sure what causes migraines. Shifting levels of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain may provoke migraines, but neurologists and brain scientists admit that we have a lot to learn before we understand the cause completely.

The list below covers a selection of migraine causes; learn more about what causes migraines in our detailed migraine and headache causes article.

There are a number of migraine triggers. Food can often trigger migraines, so you should consider avoiding:

  • alcoholic beverages
  • caffeine
  • legumes, pea pods, lentils, beans, nuts, and peanut butter
  • pickled and fermented foods such as soy sauce, pickles, sauerkraut, and olives
  • bologna, ham, herring, hot dogs, pepperoni, sausage, and other aged or cured meat
  • meat tenderizer, seasoned salt, bouillon cubes, and monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • buttermilk, sour cream, and other cultured dairy
  • aged cheese
  • the artificial sweetener aspartame
  • avocados
  • onions
  • passion fruit and papaya
  • coffee cake, donuts, sourdough bread, and other items containing fresh or brewer's yeast
  • chocolate, cocoa, and carob
  • figs, red plumbs, and raisins

Other common migraine triggers include:

  • fumes and strong odors
  • stress
  • bright lights
  • loud noises
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • weather changes
  • poor sleep
  • interruptions in your diet such as missing a meal
  • certain medications
  • hormonal changes
  • smoking
  • exercise, sex, and other intense activities

If you live with migraine headaches, avoiding triggers may help you drastically reduce the number of episodes you have to endure.

Updated on: 08/18/15
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Migraine and Headache Causes