Headaches are a global bane.
A headache is one of the most common disorders of the central nervous system. Everyone has suffered a headache at some point in their lives. Many people deal with them quite often.
They strike quietly and without warning, affecting your mood and diminishing your energy. The frequency and intensity of headaches differ from person to person.
Headache disorders are of three types:
- Tension headaches: This is the most common type of headache. It is characterized by persistent pain on both sides of the head and may be accompanied by a heavy feeling in the head and behind the eyes, as well as occasional tightening of the neck muscles.
- Migraines: A migraine is a throbbing headache, usually affecting one side of the head. Bright lights, certain smells and loud sounds often trigger it. Nausea, vomiting and neck pain usually accompany it. A migraine disrupts routine activity because the pain intensifies with activity.
- Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches strike during a certain period each year, during which they occur 2 or 3 times daily and persist over a few weeks up to a few months. A cluster headache usually breaks a person’s sleep an hour or two after going to bed and the pain can be more intense than a migraine, although it does not last as long.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people and doctors throughout the world severely undermine, underestimate and undertreat headaches, and medical practitioners rarely properly diagnose headache disorders.
Moreover, people often disregard a headache as a non-serious inconvenience that will subside in a matter of time. But a seemingly harmless headache could have serious implications.
Here are 10 warning signs that indicate your headache could be dangerous.
1. Disruptive First Headache with Vision Impairment
Giant cell arteritis (GCA), or temporal arteritis, is a disorder in which the arteries of your head, especially those running through your temples, become inflamed.
If you have never had a headache, but find yourself suddenly struck with a painful one that disrupts your daily routine, it may be a symptom of GCA.
A headache and visual disturbances are symptoms most frequently associated with GCA, according to a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology.
This type of headache is a throbbing, persistent headache usually occurring in the upper neck region, behind the eyes and at the back of the head.
These areas may feel tender when touched, and may be accompanied with a burning sensation. The scalp may also feel tender upon contact with a comb, temples of eyeglasses or a hat.
Visual blurring and loss of vision usually accompany these headaches. If left untreated, GCA can progress to blindness and stroke.
2. Thunderclap Headache
As the name suggests, a thunderclap headache strikes very suddenly like a lightning bolt, inflicting pain that peaks in intensity within 60 seconds, persists and then subsides usually after an hour.
Thunderclap headaches are usually a symptom of subarachnoid hemorrhage. A sudden headache is the primary feature of subarachnoid hemorrhage, according to a 2007 study published in The Lancet.
It is a potentially fatal condition that results in swollen brain arteries, which ultimately rupture and bleed in, and all around, your brain. It can be fatal in itself, and can also lead to a stroke.
A significant majority of subarachnoid hemorrhage patients described the associated headache as “the worst headache of their life”, according to a 2010 study published in the British Medical Journal.
Nausea, vomiting and mental confusion might be associated symptoms.
3. Progressive Headache with One-Sided Numbness and Weakness
The heart pumps blood up to the brain through the arteries. After it is utilized by the brain for basic functions, the brain returns the blood back to the heart through channels called venous sinuses.
Often, these sinuses get clogged, causing a condition called cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT), which could lead to an accumulation of blood, and subsequent bleeding in and around the brain. This is a major cause of strokes.
A headache that persists with symptoms progressing over a few days, up to a week or more, could indicate CVT. The headache is usually the first and most commonly occurring symptom of CVT, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
It is usually described as a sharp pain that occurs on one side and may be accompanied by speech and vision impairment, as well as sensitivity to light and loud sounds.
One of its defining characteristics is weakness and numbness on one side of the head, down to the shoulders and arms.
4. Headache with Neck & Face Pain
The carotid arteries are the four arteries along the sides of your neck delivering blood from your heart to your neck, face, ears and head.
Often, one of those arteries may suffer a tear, allowing blood to enter and fill up space between the different layers of the arteries. This separates them. This is called carotid artery dissection (CAD).
As the blood accumulates, it clots and prevents the flow of fresh blood from the heart to the brain. Eventually, this leads to a stroke.
The most commonly reported symptoms of CAD are sudden and intense headaches as well as neck pain, according to a 2004 study published in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association.
A headache accompanied by pain in the neck and face is a sign of oxygen deprivation and may indicate the development of CAD.
5. Headache after Risky Sexual Behavior
Headaches are the primary and most persistent symptom of HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.
Out of 131 patients with primary HIV, 45.8 percent reported tension-associated headaches, 16 percent reported migraines and 6.1 percent reported other types of headaches, according to a 2000 study published in Pain.
If you suffer from primary headaches like migraines and tension headaches, they may not signify any underlying illness, or they may indicate that HIV is in its initial stages.
However, secondary headaches like sinus headaches or those related to other diseases like meningitis, usually signify HIV that has progressed, undermining the immune system severely and allowing diseases to strike.
6. Headache with a Stiff Neck
Meningitis is a disorder characterized by the inflammation of certain membranes that cover the brain. It can be fatal as its location is so close to the brain.
If you have a headache characterized by a shooting pain and your neck feels excessively stiff, you are probably suffering from meningitis.
Ninety-five percent of meningitis patients reported a headache, stiff neck, fever and mental disorientation as the primary symptoms, according to a 2004 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
In most cases of meningitis, the headache might be a migraine, according to a 2000 study published in Cephalalgia.
7. Headache after an Injury
If you suffer a headache within the first 10 days of a head injury, you might have developed a concussion.
It is one of the most frequently persisting symptoms after a person suffers a brain injury, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.
A concussion is a condition that disrupts normal brain functioning after it suffers any kind of a blow. In most cases, the condition isn’t life threatening in itself, although its associated symptoms can severely undermine the quality and functioning of one’s life.
Loss of consciousness, memory, impaired vision and mental faculties are some symptoms commonly associated with this condition.
Rarely, a concussion may trigger the formation of a blood clot in the brain, which can result in a sharp, debilitating headache that worsens over time and may be accompanied by vomiting and weakness.
8. Headaches During or After Intercourse
Headaches associated with sexual intercourse have been a topic of medical deliberation and discussion for some time now.
There are different types of sexual headaches. People may experience a headache during intercourse when the sexual excitement is at its peak. This type of headache is not generally a cause for concern, although you should still see a doctor.
Another type of sexual headache is a throbbing pain that may occur close to orgasm. It may feel exactly like a thunderclap headache – sudden, extremely painful and reaching its summit within a minute, only to persist and gradually subside.
It could be indicative of a hemorrhage, stroke or tumor.
9. Headache after Physical Activity
A headache that occurs after walking, jogging, running, exercising, climbing a long flight of stairs, bending down or moving your head vigorously can be a sign of dehydration.
If you engage in a lot of physical exercise without paying much attention to your diet and water intake, you could be severely dehydrated, and a headache of such a nature is usually the first symptom.
A majority of people who were dehydrated reported headaches that intensified when walking, bending down and moving their heads, according to a 2004 study published in Headache.
Dehydration can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, mental disorientation and, if left untreated, can eventually cause dangerously high fever, fainting spells and seizures.
10. Headache for the First Time after Age 50
As you grow older, you become more susceptible to contracting diseases and disorders.
A person 50 or older, who does not have a history of headaches or migraines, experiencing a sharp headache for the first time must seek immediate medical help.
It could indicate giantcell arteritis, a brain tumor or the progression of some other type of tumor to the brain.
Therefore, headaches that occur after age 50 could be indicative of neurological disorders and could be life threatening.