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When a Headache Keeps Going and Going and Going…

July 22, 2021

Feel like you woke up this morning with the same headache you had last night? That’s an all-too-familiar feeling for many of us. But when is your aching head a cause for concern?

Headaches affect nearly every person at some point. These aches are considered the most common source of pain, and they’re a major reason why people miss time at school or at work. 

There are multiple types of headache, causing differing levels of pain in different parts of the head. But in general, regardless of the type of headache, these familiar pains eventually disappear.

What does it mean when your head pain sticks around for a while? Let’s take a deeper dive into the topic.

What Causes a Headache?
You’d think that since headaches are so common that we’d have a good understanding of why they occur. But actually, we don’t! 

Interestingly enough, while you feel a headache in the area of your brain and skull, that’s not where the pain emanates from. There are no pain-registering nerves in the brain tissue or skull.

Head pain can come from any number of other places within the head and neck, though, including your blood vessels, tissue surrounding the brain, the scalp, your sinuses, your teeth, and the muscles and joints found in the neck.

And sometimes, it may feel as if every one of those body parts is causing you discomfort all at one time.

While the actual mechanics of the headache might not be determinable, in most cases, you can identify what triggers the headache. Different types of headaches have different triggers—for example, tension headaches are triggered by excess stress, either mental or physical.

How Long Should a Headache Last?
That’s a bit of a tricky question to answer. Headaches vary in severity, so some last longer than others. 

Because headaches are often triggered by something, they can also linger as long as that trigger is present. Consider a heat-related headache during the middle of summer. The hot temperatures of summer days, combined with barometric pressure changes and humidity, might keep your head aching for a day or even longer.

How can you know whether your headache is “normal” or not? It’s important to consider how your body usually reacts to certain situations—such as intense heat—and whether your head pain and other symptoms are a familiar occurrence for you.

When those symptoms get out of the norm, by lasting longer than normal or being more intense, it’s worth seeking medical attention.

What Is a Rebound Headache?
There are many reasons why a headache might stick around for a while. But there’s also a specific type of headache that will keep coming back, and you may be inadvertently causing it.

A phenomenon known as a “rebound headache,” also known as a medication overuse headache,” sometimes occurs when a person overuses medication to treat head pain. While this can happen with powerful medications such as opioids, it’s also common with over-the-counter pain medications, including Excedrin.

When you’re taking these medications for headache, you may take a second and subsequent dose without really thinking about it. You’re focused on alleviating your pain.  

But over time, your body becomes accustomed to having the medication in your system. When the medication begins to wear off, your headache can recur. Then you’re likely to take more medication, which starts the cycle all over again.

If you frequently experience headaches, talk with your medical provider about the medications you take and how to ensure you’re taking the proper amount.

When Should I Seek Medical Attention for a Headache?
You should seek your medical provider’s input for any symptoms that are outside of your personal norm. 

Not sure what to look for or consider? There are some significant headache-related issues that signify an urgent or even emergent need for medical attention:

  • An unusually severe headache
  • Headaches that disrupt normal daily activities
  • Head pain accompanied by a change in personality or mental health
  • Head pain accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, confusion, slurred speech, weakness, visual changes or seizures
  • Head pain after a hit to the head 
  • Head pain that lingers and gets steadily worse
  • Head pain that worsens when you cough or move

While you should seek medical attention for a headache that lingers longer than normal, it’s even more important to seek care if you have a headache that comes on suddenly. A severe headache that begins abruptly can be a sign of an emergency medical issue, so call 911 or head to the emergency room.

Even if your headaches don’t seem to be serious, it’s worth talking with your medical provider about what you’re experiencing, particularly if you have frequent head pain. In some cases, headaches can be a sign of an underlying health condition, and treating that condition can also help alleviate your headaches.

Concerned your lingering headache could be a sign of something more serious? West Tennessee Medical Group Neuroscience & Spine offers comprehensive diagnostic and treatment options to get you back to feeling your best.