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What you can do about chronic headaches

» Head notes

» Why so many headaches?

» Seeking speedy relief

Who doesn’t get a headache now and then? But for 4 percent to 5 percent of the population—about 10 million people—a headache is a daily pain. If you suffer from painful chronic headaches, learn what you can do before the next one hits.

Head notes

As the name implies, chronic headaches strike often—at least 15 days a month and, in many cases, every day. Some chronic headaches are really migraines—unrelenting pain on one or both sides of the head, sometimes with nausea and light sensitivity. Others are tension-type headaches that feel like a tight-ening band across the head and are usually linked to stress or anxiety. In some cases, people who have been headache-free for most of their lives will suddenly develop daily head pain. Doctors can’t always pinpoint a cause, but sometimes the pain is triggered by surgery, an infection like the flu or a stressful life event.

Why so many headaches?

Experts suspect several factors contribute to frequent headaches, such as:

  • Female gender. Probably because of hormonal fluctuations, more women than men suffer from headaches, including chronic headaches.
  • Faulty brain function. The brain’s response to pain, tissue inflammation and muscle tension can malfunction, resulting in chronic head pain.
  • Genetics. Some people inherit a predisposition to headaches and increased pain sensitivity.
  • Medication overuse. When you use headache medications more than two or three days a week, they can aggravate headaches, causing what’s called rebound headache. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications like analgesics with or without caffeine, opiates, ergotamines and triptans, can cause rebound headaches.
  • Underlying health problems. Chronic headaches may be associated with other conditions like infection, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, inflammed blood vessels, brain tumor or head injury.

Seeking speedy relief

Chronic headaches take a toll on your life physically and mentally. One study found women who had frequent headaches were four times more likely to report symptoms of major depression than women who had infrequent headaches. It’s time to see your healthcare provider for evaluation if you take pain medication nearly every day, if you suffer from headaches three or more times a week, you need more than the recommended dose of pain reliever or your headaches worsen or change pattern.

If your provider finds no medical reason for your headaches, he or she may suggest one of the following treatment options aimed at preventing your headaches before they start:

  • antidepressants to restore the brain chemical serotonin, which helps regulate pain sensitivity
  • seizure-control drugs to calm the “excitability” of the brain’s pain pathways
  • antimigraine medications that constrict inflamed blood vessels and prevent them from pressing on sensitive nerves
  • relaxation training like guided imagery and deep-breathing exercises
  • behavior therapy to manage stress and anxiety
  • acupuncture, which can help reduce the amount of pain medication needed

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