When asked to describe a headache, many people will describe a pressure that feels as if something is pressing on their head, even when it is not. But in other cases, pressing on the head is what triggers head pain. The pain from this may be fleeting, or constant pressure may cause headaches that last for hours or days. While this usually does not indicate anything serious, it does mean you may want to seek treatment for headaches in order to avoid worsening pain or chronic headaches.
Causes of Head Pain
Most head pain is related to at least one headache disorder. This classification of symptoms generally refers to discomfort in the head, neck, and shoulders. Each headache can be classified further as having a primary or a secondary cause.
Primary headaches are the most common type of headaches, which are not a symptom of a disease but are a disease or condition on their own. The headache itself is the main concern that requires treatment. With primary headaches, the cause of the pain may be things like sleep issues, physical triggers, or stress.
In contrast, secondary headaches are a result of other health disorders. A huge variety of conditions can lead to headaches. Some examples include:
- Overuse of medications
- High blood pressure
- Mental health conditions
- Head injury or trauma
- Nerve disorders
- Sinus congestion
If a headache is secondary, treating the symptoms will not be sufficient, and the underlying cause must be addressed before the pain can be entirely resolved.
Types of Headaches
While “headaches” is often used as a general term, there are actually a wide variety of forms that the ailment can take, ranging from very mild to debilitating. Any headache can cause sensitivity to the head, so pressing on it or otherwise provoking it may cause additional pain.
Most people are referring to a tension headache when they say their head hurts, as these are the most common and often happen with no underlying cause. Tension headaches are rarely a sign of anything severe, but they can be extremely painful for many people. They may be brought on by emotional factors like stress or physical ones like sitting in an odd position.
The typical tension headache ranges from half an hour to a full week in length. Some people experience chronic tension headaches, which can last for 15 days or more, even lasting for months at a time in some cases.
Some people are more prone to tension headaches than others due to environmental and physical factors. It is also common for there to be a cyclical element to these headaches, in which the constant pain causes stress and depression, which induces more headaches.
Common signs of a tension headache include:
- A headache that is a constant pain, usually on both sides of the head
- The feeling that your head is “in a bag” or underwater
- Pain that moves between the temples, the back of the head, and the neck
The pain from tension headaches will be present constantly but may be worsened by pressing onto the head.
Migraine headaches can occur as a one-off but are often experienced as episodic headaches that occur on a regular basis. The pain from a migraine is described as throbbing or stinging and will usually occur on only one side of the head. Many people experience pain so severe during a migraine that they are debilitated and have to stay in bed for the duration.
It is common for migraines to be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to inputs such as light and sound, or in some cases, atouch.
Cluster headaches are a recurring form of headache that are often described as excruciating in nature. People who suffer from cluster headaches usually live in a cycle of headache free periods followed by bursts of headache attacks in close succession. The frequency can vary from once every other day to several times a day.
Ice Pick Headaches
A sharp pain in the head that comes and goes is often described as an ice pick headache. These are sudden, severely painful headaches that are often likened to being stabbed with an ice pick over and over. There is no warning before these attacks, which are usually less than one minute long but can appear any time throughout the day and several times in one day. The location of the pain is not consistent and can move throughout the head.
The sinuses are a series of connected cavities behind your forehead and nose. When inflamed, they cause you to produce mucus, like what you experience when you have a stuffy or runny nose. The buildup of this mucus can also cause head pressure, also known as a sinus headache. These are often mistaken for migraines, but they are marked by pressure behind the forehead, cheekbones, nose, and jaw.
Concussions and Head Injuries
If you have experienced a blow to the head, a car accident, or anything else that could potentially injure the brain, headaches may be the first sign that something is wrong. Concussions are the most common example of this, though more severe injuries may also be indicated by a headache. In addition to a mild pressure in the head, concussions may cause nausea, dizziness, or confusion.
Additional classifications of headaches can include:
- Medication-overuse headaches resulting from excessive use of a medication meant to help with headache pain. Overtime, this can lead to the pain becoming chronic and not responding to medications.
- New daily persistent headaches are headaches that have a sudden onset, lasting over 24 hours and occurring almost daily. These can be debilitating and often appear in people with no significant history of headaches.
- Exercise headaches happen after participating in strenuous activity or exercise and are often characterized by a pulsating pain on both sides of the head.
Finding Relief for Pressure in the Head
If your headache is worsened by pressing on the head, the first thing you can do is avoid this. That can include not using anything like headbands, earphones, or hats that place additional pressure on the head, along with making an effort not to press deliberately on the head. Since this is usually one symptom related to a larger headache, there are ways you can manage pain and symptoms at home.
Some tips for managing headache pain and pressure can include the following:
- Many types of headaches are triggered by stress. Anything you can do to promote relaxation, like taking a hot bath or getting a massage, can be helpful. If possible, eliminating extra stress in your daily life is helpful.
- Make sure you are getting enough sleep in a comfortable sleep environment.
- Focus on improving your posture to avoid stressing or tensing the muscles.
- Use ice and heat to treat sore muscles, especially for neck pain treatment.
- Over-the-counter medications like aspirin and ibuprofen can address both pain and related inflammation.
- For migraines, limiting sensory input like light and sound can be helpful. Many people will sit in a dark and quiet room for long periods during a migraine to avoid worsening symptoms.
- Light exercise can help with pain management as it causes a release of endorphins that reduce pain sensitivity. When headaches are caused by muscle tension or weakness, exercise can also help combat these issues.
Different types of headaches can have different triggers, which may not be the same in each person. If you can identify foods, weather conditions, behaviors, or anything else that triggers a headache, this can be helpful in managing episodes and preventing them from occurring or preparing properly.
As a part of identifying these triggers, you may be able to move towards a preventative model of home care and make lifestyle adjustments to accommodate these triggers. For example, if you determine that caffeine worsens your headaches, stopping the consumption of coffee can be considered a preventative measure.
When to Seek Care
While occasional headaches are normal, you should not need to consistently rely on pain medication to treat a headache more than twice per week. If you find yourself needing more relief than this, contact a doctor for further evaluation. You should also reach out if you have pain that is long-term, severe, or out of the ordinary for you.
In many cases, you can talk with your primary care physician as the first step in managing headache pain. They may direct you to a specialist if there seems to be an underlying condition at the root of your symptoms.
Diagnosis and Testing for Head Pain
When you do seek treatment, your doctor will first want to determine the type of headaches you are experiencing to help develop the right plan of action. They may also look for triggers, associated symptoms, and underlying conditions.
Your visit will usually start with a discussion of your medical history, including detailed questions about your headaches. Bringing a log with you can be helpful, as you will likely be asked about when they started, how long they last, the frequency of episodes, the type of pain, other symptoms, triggers, and a history of medications. They may also perform a physical exam of your head, neck, and shoulders. All of this information will typically be compared to the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-3), which is a standard used by all medical professionals.
From here, there are a number of steps that may be taken as a part of finding a proper diagnosis. Some things you can expect may include:
- Migraine questionnaires. There are standardized questionnaires you can fill out aimed at determining if you may be suffering from migraine headaches. This can include determining if you experience aura before your headaches.
- Medical imaging. Tests such as CT scans and MRIs can be used to identify or rule out injuries and conditions like stroke or tumor.
- Eye exams. One common cause of headaches is eye strain, especially related to screen usage. A routine eye exam may be recommended to identify vision and eye concerns that contribute to your headache. Eye exams can also identify serious issues like swelling and inflammation caused by brain tumors.
- Blood testing. Labs can be ordered to rule out potential causes of headaches, like an infection.
- Spinal tap. If a brain condition like inflammation or bleeding is causing headaches, this could be detected by analyzing cerebrospinal fluid pulled during a spinal tap.
Treatment for Headaches
The course of action for treating headaches will vary greatly depending on the type and cause of the headache you suffer from. Some problems may have very simple treatment paths, while others will be about symptom management rather than complete eradication.
Treating Tension Headaches
Tension headaches are typically the easiest to treat with home remedies, but for some people, they occur so often that this is not manageable. Daily prescription medications like tricyclic antidepressants can be used to manage chronic headaches, and acupuncture, therapy, and chiropractic care can all be used to address underlying causes.
Treating Migraine Headaches
The goal of migraine treatment is to relieve symptoms and avoid as many additional attacks as possible. Avoiding triggers can be helpful in prevention. Many people will use prescription medications like triptans, metoprolol, or propranolol to manage symptoms and reduce the severity of these headaches.
Treating Cluster Headaches
Common treatments for cluster headaches can include injectable medications and prescription nasal sprays, along with oxygen therapy.
It is important that any headache treatment is approached with a holistic and integrative approach that can not only reduce symptoms but also address underlying causes and exacerbating factors. At AICA College Park, our team of multidisciplinary providers offers everything from diagnostic imaging to chiropractic adjustments to neurosurgery. Each expert will work as part of a team dedicated to creating a personalized and targeted treatment plan. With the AICA College Park approach to care, you don’t need to suffer through headaches without answers any longer. Contact us today to get started!