Headaches are very common and almost every person has experienced it one way or another; however, fewer people still understand the scientific explanation of headaches and commonly understand that problems in the brain is a common cause of pain in the head. But what is the real scientific reason behind headaches? Here, we will discuss some of the physiology behind the occurrence of headaches depending on the type and presence of underlying medical conditions.
A basic understanding on the anatomy of the head is an essential factor for the understanding of headaches. The head contains nerves and muscles that may contribute to the occurrence of pain in the area. Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not contain nerves that sense pain so the brain itself is not the source of pain during headaches. Under the skull is a layer of covering that lines the brain and the spinal cord called the meninges and it may be a source of pain sensations that are sensed by the various nerve receptors around the head.
There are two main classifications of headaches: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are not associated with any kind of underlying medical condition and can occur even when the person is healthy. On the other hand, secondary headaches are associated with the presence of various conditions such as brain tumor, dental problems, sinusitis, infections, injuries and the like. Secondary headaches are relatively easier to explain as they occur along with physiologic changes in the body brought about by various conditions. For instance, brain tumor can increase the pressure inside the cranium that in turn, may put pressure on the nerves leading to headaches. Primary headaches occur even without these changes; thereby, explaining them can be more difficult. Generally, there are three main types of primary headache along with their scientific explanations:
• Migraine headache
Migraine headaches are usually caused by reduced blood flow to the brain leading to some form of hypoxia. Scientific studies show a role of serotonin in the development of migraine and an alteration of the neurotransmitter can lead to severe pain in the head. Migraine headaches can occur along with sensitivity to light and noise as well as gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.
• Cluster headache
Cluster headaches are types of headache involving pain in one side of the head. There is still no clear explanation on the development of cluster headache, but changes in blood flow to the head is also a factor being considered.
• Tension headache
Tension headache is the most common type of primary headache and is caused primarily by muscle tension in the head and neck area. Presence of emotional stress and other forms of stress can cause muscle spasms leading to superficial pain in the head that may concentrate on the forehead and temporal area. Eye strain may also cause tension type headache because of wrinkling of the forehead most of the time.
Headaches are relatively common, but looking into the characteristics of pain may help manage pain more effectively because the root cause/s is directly addressed.