- Mild Headache Overview
- What Causes Headache?
- What Are Headache Symptoms?
- What Are Different Types of Headache?
- When to Call the Doctor for Headache Pain
- Mild Headache Diagnosis
- How to Get Rid of a Headache
- Mild Headache Relief and Home Remedies
- Mild Headache Medical Treatment
- Mild Headache Medications and Side Effects
- Mild Headache Prevention
- Mild Headache Prognosis
Mild Headache Overview
There are many different causes of headache. The pain in different types of headache varies in intensity, location, and duration. Another important feature that helps distinguish among different types of headache is the quality of the pain -- whether it is sharp, dull, constant, intermittent, or pounding. Additional symptoms may accompany a headache:
- Numbness or weakness
- Changes in vision
- Difficulty with balance
- Eye, ear, or facial pain
- Cold symptoms
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Nausea with or without vomiting
All these factors help determine whether or not a headache needs emergency treatment. Ultimately, the cause of the headache is the determining factor in deciding the best treatment.
- Headache can affect anyone, of any race, socioeconomic status, age, and gender.
- Stress and anxiety are reported to trigger some people's headaches. Some headaches seem to have no apparent cause.
- The most common types of headache are known as tension-type, while the next most common are called migraine. What most people consider to be a mild headache is most often tension-type headache or a mix of tension-type and migraine.
What Causes Headache?
Headache is caused by irritation or injury to pain-sensing structures of the head. The structures that can sense pain include the scalp, forehead, top of head, the muscles of the neck and head, major arteries and veins in the head, the sinuses, and the tissues that surround the brain. The brain has no sensory nerve endings so the brain itself cannot "hurt."
Headache may occur when these structures suffer compression, spasm, tension, inflammation, or irritation.
Research into the mechanisms of various headache types is ongoing. The causes of mild tension-type headache are not yet completely understood. A common theory involves nerve endings in the head that are irritated by tight muscles in the neck, face, and scalp, along with irritation to the arteries and veins nearby.
The events that trigger mild headache vary widely among people who get headaches. Each person seems to have his or her own pattern. Common headache triggers include:
- Hormonal fluctuations before, during, or after menstruation
- Muscle tension in the back and neck
- Hunger and dehydration
- Medications (Many drugs designed to relieve pain can actually cause headache when the drug is stopped after a period of prolonged use.)
- Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar withdrawal
Other causes of headache include:
- Household hazards such as carbon monoxide poisoning: If the headaches are recurrent or worse each morning or if more than one person in the household experiences the same type of headache, there may be an excessive level of carbon monoxide in the air. Carbon monoxide poisoning comes from faulty heaters or stoves that do not have proper exhaust to the outside of the house. If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the building immediately and do not return until the levels of carbon monoxide are checked.
- Headache associated with eye pain and vomiting: These headaches may indicate an eye disease called glaucoma and warrant immediate medical attention, or vision can be permanently harmed.
- Headache that occurs with neck stiffness or pain, light sensitivity, fever, and confusion: These types of headaches could mean meningitis. This is a medical emergency and needs immediate attention.
- Temporomandibular joint disease (TMJ) can cause grinding of the teeth and muscular tightness around the head and face, leading to headaches.
What Are Headache Symptoms?
Mild headache symptoms are unlikely to need immediate medical attention. These symptoms include mild head pain that is aching, squeezing, or band-like, on both sides of the head, generally above the level of the eyebrows.
These headaches can occur often and may appear at predictable times. People who have these types of mild headache often know the triggers and symptoms of their headaches because the pattern repeats itself for each episode.
Common headache types include the following:
- Tension-type headache is thought to be the most common headache type. It occurs more often in women than in men. Attacks can be occasional or more frequent. Symptoms include tight, or pressing, mild-to-moderate head pain, which may be on both sides. Pain usually radiates from the neck and the back of the head around the sides.
- Migraine is the second most common headache type. These are classified according to whether or not they include an aura (a visual disturbance, weakness, or numbness that occurs 1 to 2 hours before the onset of the headache). Migraines with this aura are called classic, while those without are called common. Migraine is more common in women than men. It is often one-sided, throbbing, of moderate-to-severe intensity. The headache may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
- Cluster headache is a less common headache that occurs in men more often than women. With a cluster headache, there is intense pain that is generally on one side and located around the eye or temple. A bloodshot eye, tearing, runny nose, and eyelid drooping or swelling on the same side of the face may also occur. The headaches tend to occur in "clusters," sometimes daily or every few days over a period of weeks to months. After such a "cluster" of headaches, there may be symptom-free periods of years before another cluster of headaches occurs.
What Are Different Types of Headache?
Whether a headache is perceived as mild is often subjective. In addition to tension headaches, migraine headaches, and cluster headaches, there are other types of headaches commonly experienced. Some are mild, some may be more severe. These other headache types include:
- Sinus Headache: Pressure and fullness experienced in the front of the face, forehead, and behind the eyes caused by sinus inflammation or infection.
- Caffeine Headache: A withdrawal headache caused by stopping chronic use of caffeine.
- Cervicogenic Headache: This is like a tension headache and is caused by muscle spasm tightness that radiates from the neck. It may be associated with cervical (neck) disc disease.
- Stress Headache: Another form of tension headache. May result from stress from any cause.
- Spinal Headache: A headache that results from a spinal tap procedure (lumbar puncture). After the procedure, fluid may leak from the spinal column leading to worsening headache when standing.
- Exertion Headache: This is a headache that comes on after excessive physical exertion. It may be a combination of a tension headache and mild dehydration.
- Allergy Headache: Similar to a sinus headache, allergens in the environment irritate the nasal passages and sinus tissue and can cause headaches.
- Thunderclap Headache: This is a sudden-onset headache, often described as "the worst headache of your life." It may be caused by bleeding in or around the brain (aneurysm) and is very serious, and can be life-threatening. If you are having the worst headache of your life, especially if it is sudden in onset (like thunder hitting you), seek medical care immediately.
When to Call the Doctor for Headache Pain
Consult a doctor about your headache and find out what can be done for pain relief in these situations:
- You have a chronic medical illness such as high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack or stroke, diabetes, or liver problems.
- You do not get relief with over-the-counter pain medications.
- You are taking any other prescription or nonprescription medications.
- There is any change in the normal pattern of your headache.
- You have a new type of headache that you never had before.
- You have pain in your face or eyes.
Although headaches are very common, they may be a sign of serious disease that warrants immediate medical attention. Go to an emergency department if any of the following symptoms occur:
- Severe pain
- Pain that develops very rapidly (sudden onset)
- A change in concentration or ability to think
- A change in level of alertness
- Altered speech
- Weakness, numbness, or difficulty walking
- Changes in vision
- Headache with a stiff neck or neck pain, or if light hurts your eyes
- Worst headache of your life
- Headache with dizziness, room spinning, or falling to one side
- Headache from an injury or blow to the head
- Headache with fever (over 100.4 F or 38 C when taken by mouth)
Mild Headache Diagnosis
When you have no serious symptoms, testing is not necessary with mild headaches. Blood tests are usually not helpful because the results are almost always normal unless other symptoms are present. Without injury, X-rays or CT scans are usually not necessary. Even with an injury to the head, X-rays or scans are often not needed. Physical examination in mild headache is generally normal, except for possible tenderness of the muscles of the scalp or neck.
Mild Headache Relief and Home Remedies
Treating a mild headache will usually involve over-the-counter pain medications. There are many different medications marketed for control of headache pain. The pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars each year to advertise their products. However, many "special" headache remedies are no better than simple acetaminophen (Tylenol and others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin, and others), or aspirin. In addition, stress reduction and rest may be helpful.
Mild Headache Medical Treatment
Doctors usually recommend over-the-counter pain medications for mild headache. If these medications do not adequately treat your headache, consult a doctor for further recommendations.
Mild Headache Medications and Side Effects
Although relatively safe, over-the-counter pain medicines all have potential side effects. Inappropriate use may have serious consequences. Always read the label and follow the recommended dosage.
Even nonprescription pain medicines can be dangerous if taken improperly or if taken for headache that is caused by certain diseases (such as bleeding or stroke). Potential problems include overdose, overuse, cross-reactions with other medications (especially with blood thinners such as warfarin [Coumadin]), and toxic effects on various organs (especially the liver).
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a safe and effective pain reliever and should be considered a first-line treatment of headache.
- Although acetaminophen has few cross-reactions with other medications, avoid taking with alcohol and sleeping medicines (barbiturates and benzodiazepines such as diazepam [Valium]). Unless advised by a doctor, people with liver diseases such as cirrhosis or hepatitis, and heavy drinkers, should avoid acetaminophen.
- If acetaminophen alone is inadequate, some people report the addition of caffeine to the acetaminophen provides more relief from pain (Excedrin) and is a reasonable choice for those people who can tolerate caffeine well.
- Drinking a cup of caffeinated coffee with a pain reliever can provide the same caffeine effect. By increasing the production of stomach acid, caffeine helps the body absorb headache medicines more quickly.
- Acetaminophen is generally safe for pregnant women to take who have a headache. If you have constant or persistent headache with pregnancy, consult your doctor.
- Aspirin is another common pain reliever. Its most common side effects are stomach upset and increased risk of bleeding. Aspirin is a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAID.
- People with stomach ulcers or on blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin) should not take aspirin.
- Alcohol use increases the risk of bleeding. Heavy drinkers should not take aspirin because of the risk of bleeding from stomach irritation or ulcer formation.
- People older than 60 years and those with kidney problems should not take aspirin unless advised by their doctor.
- Aspirin is commonly prescribed by doctors after a stroke without bleeding and can prevent another stroke.
- Taking aspirin for undiagnosed severe headache may be dangerous. The severe headache could come from a bleeding stroke and taking aspirin may make the bleeding worse.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs known as NSAIDs include such medications as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve, Naprosyn). These medications are often used for headache.
- The side effects are similar to those of aspirin. It is important not to take aspirin and other NSAIDs together because the side effects are additive -- meaning they build on each other and become worse than one taken alone.
- The same warnings about age, kidney disease, stroke, and alcohol problems apply to other NSAIDs as well as to aspirin.
- Some homeopathic, naturopathic, herbal, and other home remedies may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of a mild headache. However, use of those remedies that are not tested for safety or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be potentially dangerous and are not recommended. Without FDA regulation there is no control over the quality, dose, or ingredients. Scientific studies that document safety and effectiveness are not required prior to the sale of these unregulated products.
Mild Headache Prevention
Headaches can be annoying and debilitating. Make an effort to identify any behaviors that may trigger or contribute to your headache pattern.
- Any pain medication taken on a long-term basis can cause headache when suddenly stopped. This is called rebound or withdrawal headache. If you take more medication to relieve the pain, the headache-rebound-headache cycle continues.
- Caffeine withdrawal can cause mild headache. Options are to avoid caffeine entirely or to continue moderate use to avoid withdrawal. If you choose to stop chronic caffeine use and get caffeine withdrawal headaches, they should last no more than a few days.
- Alcohol use can cause headache and dehydration especially after consumption of large quantities (binge drinking).
- Nicotine in tobacco products has been shown to cause headache. Avoiding these products may decrease the number of headaches as well as greatly improve overall health.
- For stress-induced headache various forms of stress reduction can be helpful as can biofeedback and meditation.
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Medically reviewed by a Board Certified Family Practice Physician
National Headache Foundation, 2013.
The TMJ Association (TMJA), Ltd. 2013.
UpToDate. Evaluation of headache in adults.
UpToDate. Tension-type headache in adults: Acute treatment.