I spend at least eight hours a day in front of the computer. As a result, more often than not, my days end with a dull, throbbing pain behind my eyes that makes me hate light and loud sounds. My coworker gets headaches too, but her pain is at the temples instead. Because headaches are so common, neither of us has looked into this. I guess we both assume they are an annoying part of life with no viable solution beyond aspirin and a nap.
However, there are many established triggers for headaches, most of which we can avoid or eliminate (even the eyestrain that is the bane of my existence). The process starts with the knowledge that there are different kinds of headaches based on where we feel the pain. Learning about the more common types of headaches—tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches—will help us figure out what causes them in the first place and how to reduce their occurrence.
The Three Big Hitters
Tension headaches are the most frequently occurring type and are characterized by a feeling of tightness on both sides of the head, the forehead area, and/or behind the eyes. The feeling is often likened to a band being wrapped around someone’s skull, but it’s actually caused by the muscles on the back of the head pulsating and causing pressure. If these types of headaches occur only occasionally, they are episodic and treated with a change in lifestyle or aspirin. Chronic tension headaches occur almost every day and can require prescription medication.
Migraines are characterized by sharp, throbbing pain at a certain spot on the head (though sometimes it occurs on both sides), which is usually followed by nausea, an aversion to bright lights, and visual disturbances like seeing spots or auras. The exact causes are unknown, but researchers have determined it has something to do with blood vessels swelling and making contact with sensitive nerves when there is an influx of chemicals in the brain. The pain from a migraine headache is significantly more severe than that of a tension headache. People are also more prone to migraines if there is a family history of them. Women tend to get them more than men do.
These types of headaches occur spontaneously and rapidly (hence the name “cluster”) over a certain period that can last anywhere from days to months. Each attack can last from minutes to hours. They occur much less frequently than tension or migraine headaches, but the pain is extremely intense and unaffected by aspirin. Those suffering from cluster headaches experience pain on one side of the head, usually behind the eye, resulting in a sagging and reddened eyelid. Sometimes it congests the nasal passage on the affected side of the head.
Common Headache Triggers
Though these types of headaches are quite varied, the behaviors or conditions that trigger them often overlap. Stress, anxiety, and dehydration are big contributors to headaches, as well as alcohol consumption, skipping meals, eyestrain, offensive odors (smoke, perfume, household cleansers, etc.), hormonal changes, weather fluctuations, and a lack of sleep. Both migraines and cluster headaches have been associated with certain genes, so it’s possible to inherit a predisposition to a certain type of headache.
Certain ingredients in foods can also cause headaches in sensitive individuals. If you know you are sensitive to food additives, watch out for items that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives, sulfites, tyramine (an amino acid found in some foods), and caffeine. MSG is often found in packaged foods like chips and crackers (flavored Triscuits, for example). To avoid preservatives, look for terms like “sodium benzoate” and “nitrites” on the labels of goods like sausage, deli meat, and pre-prepared food. Beverages and foods with sulfites include wine and dried fruit, like raisins. If you’re sensitive to tyramine, steer clear of foods with high amounts, such as yogurt, soy sauce, and certain cheeses. Coffee is a well-known caffeine source, but it’s also found in chocolate, green and black teas, and some soft drinks. Other potential offenders include pickled foods and nuts.
Preventing the Pain
By the time I feel a headache coming on, I know that it’s too late for aspirin to have an effect. The best way to deal with headaches is to avoid whatever behavior causes them. Since most of the time mine are caused by eyestrain, I make it a point to give my eyes frequent breaks from the computer. Keeping a headache diary is a useful way to pinpoint the source of your affliction. When you get a headache, write down where the pain is located and its intensity, and try to remember what you were doing before it occurred. This will help pinpoint behaviors that can be altered in the future, such as avoiding aged cheeses or caffeine after a certain point in the day.
If it’s too late to prevent the headache, there are a few alternatives to aspirin for relief. Putting cucumber slices or a cold, damp washcloth over the eyes can dull the pain slightly, particularly for tension headaches. Ingesting ginger, which is an anti-inflammatory, can help minimize pressure on the blood vessels. (It can also help with migraine-induced nausea.) Some believe that acupressure, a form of therapy that involves applying pressure to certain points on the body, is the best way to alleviate pain.
Ultimately, headaches are our bodies’ way of telling us that we’re not treating them as well as we should. Simply being mindful of our bodies could make headaches less of a pain in our lives. Even making small, manageable changes like keeping hydrated or looking away from the computer screen every fifteen minutes could make a significant difference. There are myriad ways to deal with headaches and it all starts by figuring out what type of headache you have and what brought it on in the first place. What works for some will not necessarily work for others, so explore your options to find the optimal solution to the headache conundrum.