Headaches suck, no matter how you slice it. Some of the time, at least, you can clearly point out what brought one on: Maybe you had one too many happy hour drinks, went hard during a run in the heat, or skipped lunch to tackle a deadline at work. (Side note: Let’s all try our best not to do that last thing again.) But if your headache feels especially heinous, or you’ve had one after another recently, you might wonder: Is it possible I have migraine—or maybe some other health condition?
When you’re in the throes of a headache, it’s not actually your head that’s throbbing. Rather, the pain is your brain’s way of sending a warning bell that something else probably needs your attention—more than 300 potential “somethings,” or medical issues, to be precise, Lawrence C. Newman, MD, director of the Headache Institute at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, tells SELF. (So, in the cases outlined above, dehydration, hunger, and stress are possible underlying culprits—your brain is just loudly suggesting that you address them.)
If you’re wondering why your head is giving you grief, try to get specific about how it and the rest of your body feels, Kiran F. Rajneesh, MD, director of the Neurological Pain Division at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine, tells SELF. He says that where the head pain is located, how intense it feels, and if it’s paired with other symptoms, can help you understand whether you’re experiencing a headache vs. a migraine attack, or something more. Here’s how to make sense of what you’re going through, so you can seek out the right treatment and put an end to hellish brain pain ASAP.
If your head is pounding, there’s a good chance you have a tension headache.
When people say, “I have a headache,” they’re often referring to a tension headache, the most common type of headache, Dr. Newman explains. According to the US National Library of Medicine, a tension headache usually feels like a band is “squeezing,” or wrapping tightly around, your forehead, with pain that can extend to the scalp and neck. “It’s a pressure-like sensation that’s mild or moderate, it often doesn’t interfere with [a person’s day-to-day life], and there’s generally no nausea or light, sound, and smell sensitivity,” Dr. Newman says.
In other words, you probably won’t feel super energetic if you have a tension headache, but you might still be able to push through whatever you have to get done that day (ideally with at least one power nap along the way). That’s not to say a tension headache can’t suck; they can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a few days, and in rare cases, for 15 or more consecutive days and for several months at a time.
Some medications, like over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, can alleviate the tension, but you might want to use them sparingly—no more than two to three days over a seven-day period: “Don’t take [OTC medications for head pain] too frequently, as they can sometimes worsen headaches, leading to rebound headaches from overusing medication,” Joy Derwenskus, DO, associate professor of Neurology and head of the General Neurology Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF. She recommends starting with other relief methods, like ice or heat packs, meditation, and generally just getting rest. If those options don’t get rid of your headache, you should see a neurologist about getting on preventive medication.
Migraine symptoms can involve a lot more than just head pain.
Like tension headaches, migraine is considered a primary headache (meaning the head pain itself is the main problem, not something else), but it’s a bit more complex. According to Yale Medicine, migraine is a neurological disorder affecting 15 to 20% of adults in the US that usually requires ongoing treatment.1 While doctors don’t know exactly why people develop migraine, genetics is one significant factor that might play a role: Roughly half of all people with migraine have a close relative who has it, too.