For most men, an occasional headache is nothing more than a speed bump in the course of a busy day. But for some of us, headaches are a bigger problem. Learn more about the major types of headaches — among the 200-plus varieties — and how lifestyle changes and non-prescription medication can ease their impact on your life.
Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. They are usually mild to moderate in severity. But some men get severe tension headaches, and some have them 3 or 4 times a week.
The typical tension headache produces a dull squeezing pain on both sides of the head. You feel like your head is in a vise. Your shoulders and neck can also ache. Some tension headaches are triggered by fatigue, emotional stress, or problems involving the muscles or joints of the neck or jaw. Most last for 20 minutes to 2 hours.
You can treat occasional tension-type headaches with over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen. (Always follow the directions on the label, and never take more than you should.) A heating pad or warm shower may help; some people feel better with a short nap or light snack.
If you get frequent tension-type headaches, try to identify triggers so you can avoid them. Don't get overtired or skip meals. Learn relaxation techniques. If you clench your jaw or grind your teeth at night, a mouth guard may help.
If these methods don't work, your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain killer or a muscle relaxant to control the pain, or a tricyclic antidepressant to help prevent frequent attacks.
Migraines occur less often than tension-type headaches but they're usually much more severe. In the course of a year, about 6% of men will have at least one migraine.
Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in the brain's blood flow and nerve-cell activity. Genetics play a role, since 70% of migraine sufferers have at least one close relative with the problem.
Although a migraine can come on without warning, it is often set off by a trigger. Triggers vary from person to person, but a migraine sufferer usually remains sensitive to the same triggers. Some men can prevent migraines simply by avoiding triggers. Major migraine triggers for men include
climate changes, such as rising humidity or heat
lack of sleep or oversleeping
sensory triggers, such as bright or flickering lights, loud noises and strong smells
dietary triggers, such as missing a meal, alcohol, especially red wine, chocolate, nitrates in cured meats and fish, aged cheese and an increase or decrease in caffeine.
A typical migraine involves a severe throbbing or pulsating pain on one side of the head, often centered on the eye or temple. Migraines often begin in the evening or during sleep. In some men, the attacks are preceded by several hours of fatigue, depression and sluggishness, or by irritability and restlessness.
About 20% of migraines include symptoms called the aura, which may include flashing lights, temporary loss of vision, halos, sparkles and wavy lines. The aura may also produce numbness or tingling on one side of the body, especially the face or hand. Some patients develop aura symptoms without getting headaches.
The pain is often severe and is described as throbbing or pulsating. Nausea is common, and many migraine patients have a watering eye, a running nose or congestion. If these symptoms are prominent, they may lead to a misdiagnosis of sinus headaches.
Without effective treatment, migraine attacks usually last for 4 to 24 hours. When you're suffering a migraine, even 4 hours is far too long — and that's why early treatment is so important.
If caught in its earliest stages, you may be able to control a migraine with non-prescription pain relievers. Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and combinations of pain medications and caffeine are all effective, as long as you take a full dose very early in the attack.