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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

and Migraines

Understanding Headaches:
From Mild to Migraine

Photo of a woman holding her head in pain

Millions of people have headaches every day. But not all headaches are the same. From mild tension headaches to crippling migraines, there are steps you can take to prevent them or reduce their pain.

Karl Eckhart first felt the crushing, very painful symptoms of a migraine headache as a college student in his native Iowa. "My bouts usually lasted six to eight hours. The only way to get through them was to lie down in a dark room and just suffer through it.

"My migraines start as a dull ache at a pinpoint spot in my head," he says. "Then I get really sensitive to light. That's when I know it's not just a regular headache. I often get nauseated, sometimes sick to my stomach; then I have to lie down."

For nearly two decades, Eckhart, now living in Alexandria, Virginia, coped with the migraines on his own. First, he took an over-the-counter pain reliever. It helped. But then he developed a stomach ulcer, which the pain reliever only aggravated.

That's when he decided he had to see his doctor, who happens to be a neurologist. He started Eckhart on a prescription medication for migraines, and, so far, the results have been good.

Karl and Lisa Eckhart

Karl and Lisa Eckhart are enjoying life even more, now that his migraine headaches are responding to medicine prescribed by a neurologist.
Photo: Karl Eckhart

"The medicine knocks them out in three to four hours," he says. "You feel a little cold but that's how I know it's working. I wish I'd gone to the doctor a lot sooner."

What Are Headaches?

What is it that hurts when you have a headache? Your skull bones and tissues of the brain never hurt, because they do not have nerves that are sensitive to pain. But other areas of the head can hurt, including the network of nerves that extends over the scalp and certain nerves in the face, mouth, and throat. Also sensitive to pain are the muscles of the head and the blood vessels found along the surface and at the base of the brain.

Understanding why headaches occur and improving their treatment are part of the research goals of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). As the federal government's primary brain researcher, NINDS also supports studies to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of headaches. Much of that research focuses on migraines.

"The more we understand, the likelier we can develop good drugs to treat migraines," says Dr. Nabih Ramadan of the National Headache Foundation and a clinical professor of neurology at Loyola University. His migraine research is partially funded by NIH. "There are drugs currently in clinical trials that may make treatment even better," he says.

"In the next five years, we should see some new and novel treatments, even some non-medicinal ones that have long-lasting benefits. Understanding what happens at the cellular and molecular level has improved migraine treatment tremendously over the last 20 years," Ramadan says.

"My bouts usually lasted six to eight hours. The only way to get through them was to lie down in a dark room and just suffer through it."

"For us, migraines are hereditary," says Karl Eckhart. "My mom and her side of the family all have them. For the women, migraines occur in a cycle. For the men, migraines are triggered mostly when the weather changes and the barometric [air] pressure falls. It goes back generations.

"For me, migraines began with the weather. Now they're triggered by workplace stress. My advice? Don't delay going to the doctor. There are many different causes of migraines. People need to identify and try to address them. Regular exercise helps me with the stress trigger. Also, I avoid chocolate.

"The point is," Eckhart declares, "medical research has really made a difference for me."

Fast Fasts

  • The most common type of headache is a tension headache. These usually are due to tight muscles in your shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw.
  • Migraines, the most serious of headaches, can cause intense pain and nausea, and occur again and again. There are medicines that
    can help.
  • Sometimes, but not often, headaches warn of more serious problems. If you suffer sudden, severe headaches, tell your healthcare provider. Get immediate medical help if you have a headache after a blow to your head, or if you have a headache along with stiff neck, fever, confusion, loss of consciousness, or pain in the eye or ear.

To Find Out More

Read More "Headaches and Migraines" Articles

Understanding Headaches: From Mild to Migraine / Headache Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment / Migraine 101 Quiz

Spring 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 2 Pages 16 - 17