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June 18, 2018  |  Login
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Warning: Sometimes headaches signal a medical emergency. If you have a headache that is much more severe than any you've ever felt before, or if you experience a headache along with any of the following symptoms, seek medical help at once:

  • Double vision
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • A stiff neck
  • Projectile vomiting
  • Paralysis
  • Vertigo
  • Fever
  • Deafness in one ear
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness

Headaches are one of the most frequently occurring disorders; they're more prevalent than even the common cold. Most of us have experienced headaches of varying intensity and kind, and most of us will continue to have them now and then.

The vast majority of headaches are caused by tension in the muscles of the head, the shoulders, and the neck. If you have a tension headache, you may feel tightness, pressure, or throbbing anywhere in your head or neck. Often the pain is worse as the day goes on but disappears upon waking the next day.

Migraine headaches are another matter. They account for only 6 percent of headaches, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for in severity. They are intensely painful and are often accompanied by vision disturbances, extreme ­ sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting. A migraine episode, which is usually ­ incapacitating, may last a few hours, or it can go on for several days. Unlike tension headaches, migraines are not caused by muscular tension but by disturbances in blood flow to the head. In addition, it is rare to have just one migraine; most migraine sufferers get them at least once a month. The disorder can run in families and affects far more women and girls than it does men or boys.

Cluster headaches are a different type of headache, characterized by painful one-sided headaches that usually occur in clusters of several headaches in a short period of time. There may be no headaches for weeks or months.

Headaches can be triggered by a variety of factors, most often stress and anxiety but also allergies, hormone imbalance, poor digestion and detoxification, low blood sugar, fatigue, and drugs (including caffeine and alcohol). Most headaches are best addressed by identifying and removing the trigger or triggers, along with implementing strategies for natural pain relief.

If you have recurring or extremely severe headaches, however, you should consult a doctor to rule out any serious underlying causes, which can range from glaucoma to high blood pressure to brain tumors. Check with your doctor before combining herbs with prescription headache medications.

Next: What are the Symptoms of a Headache

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