4 Headache Pains That Aren't Actually from a Headache


A tension headache might feel as if you have your head in a vise. But more often than not, it's triggered by a neck problem. "You see it a lot in people who sit in front of computers all day," says Jim Leonard, D.O., co-director of the Spine Center at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic. "Sustaining that one position for hours on end overloads the neck and spine." The pain then ripples up into your melon. Unlike severe whiplash, however, a tension headache illustrates the saving grace of many head and neck injuries: They can be cured with DIY medical care. Sure, 2 million people visit hospitals each year for neck pain, and another 3 million seek help for headaches. But you don't have to be one of them, if you put your mind to it. Here's how to diagnose and ease the pain. And if the pain stems from lower down your spine, it's probably the dreaded lower back pain, so learn how to conquer that beast once and for all.

A sharp pain when you swallow

You may also feel pain when you yawn, talk, or chew. You feel pain in your temples, lower jaw, cheeks, or in front of or in your ears. If you open your mouth wide, you might feel popping, clicking, or grinding.

Diagnosis: Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). Chronically tense and sore muscles in your jaw are interfering with its functioning; that, or the small cartilaginous pads that cushion your jaw joints have become inflamed or even displaced (often the result of getting elbowed in the face during sports or grinding your teeth while sleeping).

Treatment: Rest your jaw. That means no chewing gum or eating jaw-straining foods like peanuts, raw vegetables, salads, or taffy. Put an ice pack on your jaw for 2 minutes two or three times a day. You can also take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation. "In most cases, symptoms will go away within a week or two," says Wesley Shankland, D.D.S, director of the TMJ and Facial Pain Center in Columbus, Ohio, and author of TMJ: Its Many Faces. If symptoms continue, ask your dentist for a custom mouth guard; chances are you're grinding your teeth while you sleep. So calm yourself down; try any of the 30 scientifically proven ways to reduce your stress.

A throbbing pain

It's on one side of your head. You might feel nauseated, have stomach cramps, and lose your appetite. Lights and sounds aggravate your pain. You might also see stars or have blurred vision.

Diagnosis: You have a migraine. Twenty-nine million Americans suffer from them each year, almost half of them unwittingly because their doctors misdiagnose their pain as sinus congestion.

Treatment: Take on OTC anti-inflammatory, and lie down in a dark, quiet room. "Sleeping it off almost always works well," says Seymour Diamond, M.D., director of the Diamond Headache Clinic, in Chicago. But don't sleep more than 8 hours. "Oversleeping can trigger another attack," says Diamond. Also, stay away from alcohol, aged cheese, and processed meat, as they contain chemicals that expand blood vessels – another migraine trigger. Finally, schedule an appointment with your doctor, and keep a record of your symptoms to help him develop a long-term treatment plan. To ensure you're getting the highest-quality shuteye, try the 10 methods of ensuring a perfect 8 hours.

A stiff neck

You have difficulty turning your head without feeling pain. You might also feel tingling or numbness in your arms and fingertips.

Diagnosis: Whiplash. No need to be in a car accident to get it – a simple fall, a tumble on a ski slope, or even a hearty sneeze can supply enough force to jerk your head first in one direction, and then another, spraining your neck muscles.

Treatment: For a mild case, back off all strenuous activity, and take an OTC anti-inflammatory every 6-8 hours until the pain and stiffness subside. If your symptoms are intense or don't go away for a few days, see your doctor. He may order X-rays or an MRI to rule out disk abnormalities and nerve irritation. You'll also benefit from wearing a soft neck collar and working with a physical therapist to stretch and strengthen your neck and correct any joint imbalances.

A sharp pain in your neck

It happens especially when you move your head. The pain might spread to your shoulders and blossom into a headache.

Diagnosis: Strained or stiff neck. Any sporting activity can strain the muscles in your neck, causing them to spasm and tighten. So can hunching behind the wheel of your car or at your desk at work for long periods of time.

Treatment: Ice your neck for 30 minutes two or three times a day for the first 48 hours. Then switch to moist heat: Microwave a gel pack, and wrap it in a wet towel. Again, apply it for three 30-minute intervals. You may want to take an OTC anti-inflammatory to reduce the swelling and relieve an accompanying headache. Also, keep your chin tilted downward when sitting, and sleep on your back or your side instead of on your stomach (the later position can compress your vertebrae and lead to a pinched nerve). With any luck, your pain will vanish within a few days. To ensure you're not injuring yourself during a workout, be sure to stretch out before and after activity. For starters, check out the 5 stretches that will warm you up for any workout.

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