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Headaches are one of the most common health complaints. For most people, headaches are infrequent and annoying and they go away with rest or over-the-counter medications. Others may suffer from chronic headaches, or headaches which cause severe pain. Headaches are not completely understood by the medical community, but research has advanced a few theories. Many factors can play a role in chronic headaches.

There are three main types of headaches: muscle contraction, vascular, and organic.

Muscle contraction headaches, or tension headaches, are usually associated with stress, exhaustion or anger. Muscles in the head and neck can contract and put pressure on nerves and blood vessels. Usually there is pain or tightness localized in the forehead, back of the neck or on the sides of the head. Some researchers have found a link between chronic muscular contraction headaches and depression.

Vascular headaches are caused by the constriction or dilation of blood vessels in the head. Headaches associated with alcohol, hunger, and eating foods with tyramine, are probably vascular in nature. Migraines, cluster and exertion headaches are also vascular. Migraines are chronic vascular headache that usually start with the person seeing a light haze or aura. Some people see shooting light. Migraines can last several days with severe pain, nausea, and blurred vision. Seventy percent of people with migraines are women. Migraines tend to run in families, may be associated with personality traits, and could be due to a biochemical imbalance causing vessels to contract or dilate.

Organic headaches are usually symptoms of some other health problem. High blood pressure, eyestrain, allergies, and sinus problems all can cause headaches. Usually, by treating the cause of the health problem, the headaches will disappear.

Triggers: Many factors are associated with the susceptibility to headaches, but triggers are what set them off. Headaches can be produced by one particular trigger or sometimes by a combination of triggers. By looking for patterns you can identify some personal triggers and try to avoid them. Frequent headache triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Sudden weather changes
  • Hormonal changes caused by PMS, menstruation, birth control pills, pregnancy or menopause
  • Missing a meal
  • Exposure to bright light (especially fluorescent light or sunlight)
  • Too little sleep
  • Reaction to certain foods eaten within the last 24 hours
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke, perfumes, or other strong odors
  • Experiencing a letdown after stress
  • Too much sleep
  • Exercise or exertion

  • Changing of the seasons (Spring and Fall are worst)
  • Some medication
  • Eyestrain
  • Travel on planes, trains, cars or busses (especially in areas with poor circulation)


Acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.) and ibuprofen (Advil, etc.) are usually effective in treating occasional headaches. If you suffer from chronic headaches, you might start by keeping a log of your headaches and possible triggers, outlining the possible contributing factors. There are effective prescription medications for people who have chronic headaches, including migraines.

Symptoms to take seriously

If you have any of the following symptoms, consult your health care provider as soon as possible. You could be experiencing a medical emergency. If you get a very sudden and excruciating headache, unlike any you’ve ever had before, you need to get medical attention immediately. Other symptoms of concern include:

  • A headache with a stiff neck, fever or rash
  • Headaches that come on suddenly after coughing, straining or exertion
  • Changes in vision (or other senses), double vision, increased weakness or loss of sensation
  • General weakness or numbness or slurred speech
  • Persistent or severe vomiting
  • Persistent headaches that progressively worsen over days or weeks
  • Headaches that start suddenly (especially if you’ve never had them before)
  • Confusion or changes in memory, personality or behavior
  • Unexplained fever or breathing problems that accompany a headache
  • A sudden change in the severity of a headache
  • A constant headache with no relief
  • Experiencing three or more headaches a week
  • Use of pain relievers every day or almost daily to relieve headache symptoms

Essential Numbers

Willamette Valley Medical Center 472-6131
Physicians’ Medical Center472-6161
Doctor on call 24 hours Doctor on call 24 hours

Student Health Center 503-883-2535

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