Headaches: What you need to know

About 36 million adults and children in the United States are affected by headaches.

The Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy (AHDA) estimates that the annual direct and indirect economic costs of headache disorders exceed $31 billion in the United States.

While headaches are more common in boys under age 12, women are three times more likely to have headaches than men.

There are three main types of headaches:

Migraines are severe, disabling headaches that typically occur on one side of the head.

They may be accompanied with nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. These headaches typically last more than four hours.

Tension headaches produce more of a global pressure sensation. These headaches are mild to moderate in severity and usually go away within four hours.

Cluster headaches typically occur multiple times per day over several days to weeks. Cluster headaches are often described as a sudden, sharp, severe pain behind one eye. These headaches reach their peak in one to three minutes and generally last 30-90 minutes each.

If you suddenly feel like you’re having the worst headache of your life, call 911 immediately. This could be a medical emergency.

Although headaches may indicate an underlying medical problem, more often lifestyle is the culprit. The effects of headaches can impact sleep, learning, social activities and relationships.

An initial tool for a headache-sufferer is a headache diary. In a headache diary, you record events before, during and after each headache. This information helps you and your physician determine significant patterns and triggers and helps the physician create a personalized treatment plan. Treatment options range from natural remedies, lifestyle adjustments and/or tailored medications.

Adequate rest, stress reduction, exercise and a healthy diet can help reduce and sometimes prevent headaches. While over-the-counter pain medications are helpful in reducing headache pain, they should be taken with caution.

Overuse or misuse of any pain medication can cause headaches to “rebound.” When a rebound headache wears off, the withdrawal reaction prompts for additional medication. The headaches become more cyclical and more severe over time. Early intervention is key to preventing this vicious cycle.

Anytime headaches or series of headaches interfere with the quality of your life, you should see your doctor.

Education, awareness and research are keys to conquering headaches. You can learn more about headaches using the following resources:

Head Wise, a quarterly publication of The National Headache Foundation

“Five Headache Recommendations for Patients and Physicians,” released by the American Headache Society as part of the Choosing Wisely initiative in connection with the American Board of Internal Medicine

Additional online resources for headache sufferers are available through The American Headache Society

Dworek is a neurologist with fellowship training in headache medicine. He is a graduate of Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed his neurology residency at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.