What Causes Headaches?

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It's easy to take a few pills and try to will away the pain of a headache, but it's important to understand the factors that cause a headache--especially if you have them often. There are three main types of headache and many less-common types. Doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of any type of headache; however, they have narrowed down the potential causes to the most commonly observed. Knowing what might have caused the pain can potentially help you stop it from happening again.

General Causes

Lifestyle factors have been shown to contribute to the three types of primary headache--migraine, tension and cluster. Though there are more specific causes related to each headache type, there are a few common factors. Poor nutrition contributes to the likelihood of a headache. If you skip meals, you may be more likely to get a headache. Genetics may play a role as well. People whose parents suffer headaches are more likely to suffer themselves.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches cause moderate to severe pain, and may result in nausea and dizziness. They can be caused by several factors. Certain types of food can cause migraines, such as alcohol and highly processed foods. Hormonal changes, especially in women, can bring on this type of headache. This is often exacerbated by a woman’s menstrual cycle; headaches are often reported before or in the middle of a period. Someone with an irregular sleep pattern or who is under a lot of stress may be more likely to have a migraine headache.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches strike quickly and are incredibly painful. Doctors are not sure what causes them, but it is thought that an abnormal hypothalamus could be a major contributing factor. Environmental factors don’t play a big part in the onset of cluster headache symptoms. These headaches are more related to internal factors, such as serotonin and hormone levels.

Tension Headaches

The most common type of headache is a tension headache. However, this doesn’t mean that doctors understand the causes of them any better. They may be triggered by changes in brain chemicals. These changes can stop the brain’s ability to regulate and control pain, leading to headaches. External factors may include bad posture, tension and stress (which may manifest itself in something like a clenched jaw), or anxiety.

Secondary Headaches

There are many causes of secondary headaches, some easily remedied and some very serious. Although there is nothing to worry about from an ice cream "brain freeze," headaches caused by concussions can be fatal. Certain types of medications can trigger headaches, as well as certain types of illness including the flu. These are usually easily remedied. However, other secondary headache causes such as brain aneurysms and tumors are not. If you suspect your headache is out of the ordinary, contact your doctor immediately.

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