Why your head hurts and how to deal with it

Should you treat your headache with some TLC at home, or does it warrant medical treatment? An expert gives the lowdown
Last Updated 02 May 2022, 16:40 IST

Headaches can be a real nuisance, especially when you have a busy day ahead of you. They cause discomfort and distract the sufferer and disrupt their routine.

According to the World Health Organization, headache disorder or recurrent headaches are among the nervous system's common disorders. Almost half of the adult population experiences at least one bout of headaches a year, but they are still underestimated, under-recognized and under-treated.

We spoke to Dr Nishant Sharma, Department of Medicine, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Delhi, about the reasons behind those painful headaches, the symptoms of a life-threatening headache, and what to do about them.

What causes headaches?

Headaches often come unannounced and can occur because of many reasons. It could be associated with an existing fever, cough, and cold, a trauma or may be present as a standalone symptom.

Dr Sharma believes that amongst the younger generation, their lifestyle and routine sets a precedent for headaches.

"Increased screen time, prolonged study hours, high salt diet, inadequate water intake, day-to-day stress factors, and even excessive exertion may manifest as headaches," said Sharma.

The presence of loud noises or bright lights also acts as a catalyst for headaches. It may also occur due to an underlying disease that needs investigation and proper medical attention.

Pressing on the association of headaches with refractive errors in the young and glaucoma in the elderly, Dr Sharma suggests, "One must certainly get their eyes checked regularly, especially in case of chronic persistent headaches."

The symptoms of a headache

While some episodes of headaches last only for a short period and may be bearable, others may cause a prolonged, persistent pain lasting for hours at a stretch.

According to Dr Sharma, headaches often come with feelings of dizziness, giddiness, and nausea.

"A person who has a severe headache may describe it as a feeling of something pounding their head, or a band tightening around their head."

Any severe headache starts abruptly and is often associated with vomiting, fever, bodily weakness, and an abnormal sensation in the limbs.

What will make the headache go away?

Over-the-counter painkillers may lessen the pain temporarily, but overuse is not advisable.

"Many patients land up in hospital with renal failure due to overuse of such drugs," said Dr Sharma states. "These painkillers are also disastrous for our kidneys if taken regularly or for a long time."

Home remedies for a quick fix

Adequate hydration, reduced alcohol intake, adequate restful sleep, avoidance of stress or relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga and even coffee in moderate amounts can help alleviate regular headaches.

One can have coffee or caffeinated drinks in moderate amounts to ease out the pain, although excess coffee may itself be a cause of headaches.

Herbal teas with ginger, peppermint, lavender and chamomile may also relieve symptoms in some patients.

In acute migraine attacks, cold packs to the forehead or neck may help; resting in a calm, dark, comfortable place helps decrease the duration of migraine headaches.

Inhaling essential oils, especially peppermint, has also been beneficial for some.

When should you visit a doctor?

"A headache that develops suddenly and is associated with severe vomiting, weakness of limbs, or transient loss of conscience should be considered potentially life-threatening," said Dr Sharma.

It is a sign of concern when headaches do not respond to home-based therapy, increase in intensity over time, disturb sleep and get aggravated on bending over, coughing or lifting heavy objects.

"If it is present over one half of the head and leads to teary, red eyes, it should also be considered serious and evaluated by a medical practitioner," said Dr Sharma.

(Sanjana Chawla is a freelance journalist who writes about women, society, culture, lifestyle and entertainment.)

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(Published 02 May 2022, 16:27 IST)

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