HEADACHES: INTRODUCTION

Of the symptoms that concern patients most, headaches come high on the list. Headaches are the most common cause of pain seen by family doctors, and although only a small percentage are due to any serious disorder, the fear of underlying disease causes a great deal of anxiety, especially among those who’ve suffered from headaches for a long time.

Although the vast majority of headaches aren’t dangerous, a few are due to serious underlying disease; and the remainder may not go away unless you do something to prevent them. The trouble is, how can you be sure which is which? It’s not always easy.

Even when you know the cause of your headaches, there are still many problems. Your headaches may not be lethal, but they still hurt; they’re frustrating; they’re an inconvenience; they may stop you working properly; and for those who have recurring headaches, coping with the pain and trying to prevent further attacks can be a sizeable and exhausting problem.

Most headaches are like this: not always sinister, but always painful, debilitating and frustrating — a real spoil-sport of a complaint, interfering with both work and pleasure. Sometimes your GP or a specialist can help; for example, in the case of migraine, where a wide range of drugs is now available both to treat the attacks, and to stop further ones occurring.

But, at other times, orthodox medicine seems to have less to offer: there may be no serious underlying cause, but that doesn’t mean the headaches will necessarily go away. Often headaches are related to aspects of your lifestyle that your doctor has little or no knowledge of — the type of pillow you use; your dentures; the car you drive; or the lighting conditions at work.

Sometimes your doctor is able to reassure you that there is nothing seriously wrong and that you ‘only’ have a tension headache. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take away the pain, but it does leave you confused, thinking it’s your fault you’ve got headaches, yet perhaps not wanting to bother the doctor any further.

Many patients with chronic headaches end up like this — suffering, but not always able to get any real, lasting or satisfying help, and puzzled because what seems to trigger off the headaches on one occasion doesn’t always trigger them off on another.

In short, headaches can be a real pain — and that’s where this book comes in. We’ll show you why you’re getting headaches, explain what is going on, and, most importantly, tell you what you can do to stop them. And believe me, there’s a lot that can be done.

Let’s get things straight from the start — a headache is a symptom, not a disease. Headaches can occur for many different reasons and each type needs to be treated according to its cause. A few of the underlying causes are dangerous — meningitis or stroke, for example. Headaches like these need prompt diagnosis and treatment. But don’t become alarmed; most headaches aren’t life-threatening, just painful and annoying. If you’ve suffered from headaches for a long time it’s much more likely that your headache is unpleasant, without being serious. On the other hand, it’s very important to sort out which kind of headache you have, and to make sure that if urgent treatment is needed, you get it.

We all know people who say they’ve never had a headache in their lives. Lucky, aren’t they? For many others, a headache is merely an occasional annoyance -unpleasant, but nothing more. Unfortunately, some people are affected much more than this. Either they get headaches more often, or their headaches are so intense and debilitating that they affect the quality of their life. It’s no joke to have regular migraines. With a headache of this intensity work is impossible and enjoyment out of the question. The knowledge that next week may bring the start of another attack merely adds to the unpleasantness.

A few statistics will show the extent of the problem. Nineteen out of twenty of us get headaches at some time or other. Men and women of all races are equally affected, but, interestingly, older people seem to get them less often. Every fortnight, one in four of us will have a headache bad enough to need painkillers. One in three attacks begins at work, and headaches are a common cause of absenteeism. At least one third of migraine sufferers have to stop work when an attack begins, and most migraine sufferers think that their quality of work and their careers have suffered as a result of their migraines.

Most headaches are caused by one of three things: minor viral infections, migraines and tension. Because minor headaches (those that respond quickly to painkillers) are so common, most of us don’t go to the doctor when we get one; but of those patients whose headaches are serious or persistent enough to make them consult their GP, one in five will be referred to hospital.

As well as being painful, and in some cases debilitating, headaches are upsetting. If you frequently suffer from headaches, there may be a nagging thought at the back of your mind. Is this the tip of the iceberg? What does it mean? Is there something seriously wrong? Uncle Jim had a headache and he was dead in three months from a brain tumour. How do I know I haven’t got one, too?

Even if the cause of your headaches has been sorted out satisfactorily, there is still the problem of living with the frequent pain and the disruption to your lifestyle that they can cause. What do you do when you have migraines associated with your menstrual cycle, when you know that every month you’ll have another three days of misery, vomiting your guts out, with what feels like a piledriver inside your head threatening to split your brain apart? How do you cope emotionally with this, never mind hold down a job, with the frequent absences from work that having migraines implies?

And what about the man or woman who gets frequent tension headaches? Knowing that they’re ‘only’ caused by tension helps — to a point. At least you know you’re not dying. Small consolation, because you often feel as though you are, with that nagging pain that goes on for days at a time, apparently totally resistant to painkillers. Nothing the doctor gives seems to help, except perhaps tranquillisers. How do you feel about being on those all the time? Or not having the tranquillisers, and getting the pain instead? Is there an alternative?

If you have recurrent headaches, then this book is for you. It will help you to sort out what’s likely to be causing them; why headaches like yours occur; and what you can do to stop them. With patience, most headaches can be treated very effectively. Some are helped by orthodox medical or surgical treatment, others with self-help techniques; some can be alleviated with complementary therapies, and some types of headache are best treated using a combination of all three methods.

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