The most common medical condition that people get around the world is headaches. Dr Joe Kosterich talks about headaches, including causes of headaches, why they are so common, different types of headache, simple ways to prevent or relieve headaches, and when to see your doctor.

The most common thing that people get right around the world, from a medical perspective at least, is headaches.

Hi, I’m Dr Joe.

There’s probably not a person wondering around the planet who hasn’t at some point in their life had a headache. There are many different causes for headaches and the vast majority are fairly benign. So, in other words, 99.999% – if not more – of people who have a headache are not having a stroke and don’t have a brain tumour.

So, why are headaches so common?

I don’t think anybody really knows. It may be because of the number of different things that can cause them – and very quickly: some of the causes of headaches can include eye strain, it can relate to problems with the sinuses, can relate to tensional problems in the neck, can relate to high blood pressure, there are a number of other illnesses that can contribute to and cause headaches. In addition to those causes and there are others, are of course migraine headaches, which are a particular type of headache.

The commonest form of headache, though, is the tension-type headache. It used to be just called “tension headache” and it was felt it was related purely to stress. Stress is certainly a big factor in headaches, no question of that, as is lack of sleep and tiredness. But the tension-type headache is thought to be due to tension in the muscles at the forehead or the front of the head. If they become tense or go into some degree of – if you like – spasm, will cause headaches in people. Typically, it will be felt across both sides of the head, sometimes described as a bit of a band around the head.

As I mentioned at the top, some people will get them quite frequently, some people will very rarely get headaches. One of the interesting things, though, is that they are more common in summer than in winter and reports from emergency departments report higher presentations of people with headaches in summer than in winter. There’s a simple reason for this: one of the biggest contributors to headaches we haven’t touched on is lack of water. You don’t have to be dehydrated to the point of fainting, but if the muscles are even slightly dry they will tend to cramp up or spasm a little bit. Even without going to that extent if the muscles get more tense and dry, you’re more likely to have a headache. In summer when it’s hotter we lose more fluids so it’s easier to dry out a little bit. Some of the things you feel are maybe a little bit tired, a little bit sluggish, but headache is a pointer. So one of the simplest things to do in a prevention sense with headaches is to be drinking lots of water. One of the simplest things to do if you feel a headache coming on is to go and have yourself a big glass of water. That may not be enough by itself but it will certainly help. And we also know that even in other causes of headaches, if the body is a little bit dry that it will make them worse.

What sort of other things can we do for headaches?

Rest is important. A number of people who come in and say, “I had a headache, I’ve slept for a few hours, I feel a little bit better.” If I had a dollar for one of those I’d be doing pretty well.

Basic stuff is important. If the body is a little bit dry you’re more likely to get a headache. If you’re tired for whatever reason, you’re more likely to get a headache. If you are under stress or duress, and you haven’t dealt with that you’re more likely to get a headache. In other videos we’ve spoken about mindfulness and things like deep breathing and meditation, that’s not necessarily a cure for the headache that you’ve got but helpful in a preventative sense. And certainly resting and doing some slow breathing, preferably in a dark room, when you do get a headache is helpful.

Now, sometimes you’re at work and you can’t do that – that’s where the water will come in helpful. There’s no shortage of different painkillers that can be used for headaches and I think different people have their favourite ones that seem to work for them. It’s not a great thing to just straight out reach for the pill packet every time you feel a headache coming on, try and do some simple things first. Equally you don’t want to wait until it’s bad-bad so this is where you need to be exercising your judgement. There are times when you’re going to feel, “look, I need to take something for this one”, there are other times when you feel, “I don’t think I need to take something for this headache”. So don’t be afraid to use your judgement.

To sum up, headaches: very, very common. Vast majority are a nuisance and unpleasant but not serious. If you get persistent headaches or other symptoms with the headaches, or are concerned, then certainly go along and see your doctor. But if you’re getting the garden-variety headaches that you’ve had previously and you know how to manage them, then certainly you can do absolutely that. Prevention, where possible, helps. And we’ve spoken about drinking plenty of water, particularly in the summer; we’ve spoken about getting enough rest; we’ve spoken about possibly some slow deep breathing and also managing your stress.

Doing those simple things will help. If you do get headaches from time to time, there are also simple measures you can do to treat them, as we’ve spoken about in this video. So, keep it simple and it won’t give you a headache.

More information on Headaches and Migraines