Headaches are for many people a common, if not daily, occurrence. But when is a headache more than a minor nuisance?
The answer is, probably more often than we might imagine.
Dr. Fred Freitag is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
He says headaches shouldn't be discounted as a minor medical issue. Rather, they are ranked by the World Health Organization as among the top 10 debilitating conditions worldwide, and Freitag says billions of dollars are spent on health care costs and lost work time and productivity.
Among the most common types of headaches are migraines. Freitag says these are likely caused in part by genetics (women tend to get migraines more than men). But they're also caused by certain trigger factors, including: weather changes, changes in caffeine consumption, certain foods, stress, hormonal changes for women, etc.
"Everybody from Thomas Jefferson to basketball, football players have migraines," he says. "It doesn't spare anybody."
But there are other, more serious types of headaches. Tension headaches are often related to stress or to migraines. In the latter instance, Freitag says migraines can "spill over and become a headache all the time."
Cluster headaches are a rare, but debilitating form of headache. These only affect about one percent of the population, usually men.
"Their eye waters and runs and gets red, and the nose runs, they pace," Freitag says. "The pain is so severe that it's been nicknamed 'the suicide headache.'
Freitag says unfortunately, it isn't known what causes cluster headaches. But he says sufferers of this type and other headaches shouldn't despair.
He says great strides have been made in the last 20 years to treat headaches, between medications and lifestyle changes.
"You don't have to have migraines for your entire life," he says. "If you get good help when you're a young person with a headache, that may be it. You may never have them again."
Freitag's study on the impact of specialty headache centers on disability and healthcare costs appears in October’s edition of Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.