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A headache is not just a headache. There are distinct headache types whose symptoms and duration vary. But all headaches have one thing in common — pain, which can affect one’s ability to function and enjoy life. The good news is that there are many treatment options. Barry Levin, MD, a neurologist at Emerson Hospital, sheds light on a troubling and common condition.

Q. How common are headaches?

A. Headaches are extremely common; about 80 percent of Americans experience tension headaches at some point, and about 10 percent of the population has migraine headaches. Headaches are among the most common reasons that people seek out a physician’s care.

Q. How much tension does it take to produce a tension headache?

A. Everyone’s tolerance for stress is different, so there is no specific amount of tension that will produce a headache. Tension headaches frequently are related to stress, as well as depression. The mechanism of these headaches is complicated by the probable contribution of chemical changes that affect the lower part of the brain, similar to what occurs with migraines.

Q. How are tension headaches treated?

Q. Can tension headaches be successfully treated?

A. Absolutely. The goal is to lessen the frequency of an individual’s headaches and to reduce the impact of headaches on their ability to work, go to school and interact with others.

Q. Are migraine headaches different from tension headaches?

A. Yes. Tension headaches can occur anywhere on the head and produce a feeling of pressure or aching. Migraine headaches frequently occur on one side of the head and cause severe, throbbing pain, as well as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and visual disturbances. Some people experience migraines with aura — flashing lights, jagged lines or blind spots — prior to onset of the headache. The majority of migraine sufferers are women; migraines generally become less frequent after menopause. Better treatment is now available, including medications aimed at prevention, treating the symptoms and halting the headache soon after symptoms begin.

Q. What are cluster headaches?

Q. When does a headache signal a potentially serious condition?

A. We get concerned when someone who has never had headaches starts getting them — especially if the person is older. We also worry when someone’s familiar headache pattern changes, such as the individual who begins to have more frequent or more severe headaches. Finally, if the headaches are associated with neurological symptoms, such as weakness on one side, slurring of speech, imbalance, changes in vision or persistent nausea and vomiting, we need to check for a range of serious neurological conditions.

Q. When should someone see a physician about their headaches?

A. If any of the neurological symptoms mentioned above are present, the person needs to be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible. In addition, patients should consider seeing a physician if they are not getting sufficient relief for their headaches, if they are suffering a significant number of headaches in a month or if their headaches are having an impact on their work, family or social life.

For more information on diagnosis or treatment of headaches at Emerson Hospital, call the Physician Referral Service at (978) 287-3456 or visit the hospital’s Web site at www.emersonhospital.org.

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