Nearly everyone has had a headache at some point in their lives, whether it was a result of the environment, out of nowhere, or related to an underlying condition. While headaches are common, there are a huge variety of types and causes that can occur, with some being more serious than others. Acute headaches are when the pain and discomfort start suddenly and quickly worsen and are a common category of headaches. Some people brush these off as normal, but acute headaches can indicate other factors at play with your health and are a sign you should seek out expert headache and migraine treatment.
About Acute Headaches
Acute headaches refer to any headaches in which the pain, discomfort, and associated symptoms begin suddenly and worsen quickly, rather than over a long period of time. For some people, these headaches are brought on by specific triggers like stress, a lack of sleep, or certain foods, while others may experience them more randomly. Acute headaches can happen as often as several times a day or with less frequency.
There are multiple types of headaches that are classified as acute.
The most common type of headache overall, most people will experience tension headaches in the late afternoon and see them resolve by evening. People can experience this as often as every day. Pain can range from mild to moderate and may make it difficult to tolerate bright light or loud noise. Pain from a tension headache is usually described as going across the forehead or in the back of the head and is often on only one side.
These headaches can often last for 1 to 3 days and will appear frequently, with the pain described as moderate to severe. It is common for the pain to be only on one side at a time, but it can alternate sides and be concentrated to the temple, back of the head, or behind the eyes. The pain from a migraine headache can be a throbbing sensation or a sharp and steady feeling.
Migraine headaches with aura
Some people with migraines will see or feel something prior to its beginning. It may be a small spot surrounded by bright zigzag lines or something else and can be accompanied by other symptoms.
These headaches cause severe pain, typically on only one side. Cluster headaches cause severe pain that can last from 30 minutes to 2 hours, occurring multiple times per day and even waking people overnight.
The cause of acute headaches is sometimes easily traceable but is also sometimes not known. Certain things may be known to trigger an acute headache, such as:
- Stress or tension, even hours or days after the initial event has occurred
- Fatigue, a lack of sleep, a nap during the day, or changes in your usual sleep pattern
- Menstruation, especially after pregnancy
- The use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Foods like cured meats, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, dark chocolate, and MSG
- A sudden lack of caffeine if you are used to consuming large amounts
- Medical problems, including infections, tooth pain, neck pain, sinus problems, thyroid problems, or tumors
- Head injuries
Diagnosing the Cause of Acute Headaches
Headaches can be classified in one of two ways: primary or secondary. A primary headache is not the result of any underlying disease or condition and is what most acute headaches are commonly classified as. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying condition, like inflammatory diseases or aneurysms. While the latter are generally more serious, primary headaches can still be related to other health conditions, even if they are not a direct cause of the headache. It is critical that anyone suffering from acute headaches undergo a full evaluation to ensure serious health concerns are ruled out or addressed.
When you first visit a healthcare provider, you will likely be asked to describe your symptoms. They may use the pain scale and ask you to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, as well as identify any additional symptoms. Your medical history and any logs of your headaches can be helpful and relevant here, as can some questions about your general lifestyle and habits.
If your provider is concerned about issues like blood vessel leaks, aneurysms, or other serious health problems, they may refer you for a CT scan or other diagnostic imaging. It can be particularly useful to do these scans both during a headache and when you are not experiencing a headache to identify any differences in the brain.
Managing Acute Headache Symptoms
In most cases, acute headaches can be managed on their own without significant medical intervention. If you are experiencing what you think may be an acute headache, some things you can try are below.
- If possible, lie down in a comfortable position in the dark and close your eyes.
- Focus on relaxing your muscles. Start at your toes and work your way up the body.
- Alternate heat and ice applied to the painful area. For ice, you can use an ice pack or put crushed ice into a plastic bag, but be sure either is wrapped in fabric or a towel before applying it to your skin. Keep on for 15 to 20 minutes every hour for as many days as needed. For heat, apply for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. Both will help with pain, and heat can decrease muscle spasms.
- You can use over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs or acetaminophen to manage pain, but you should not take these in excess as they can cause problems over time.
If you are able to identify triggers that bring on headaches like insomnia or other causes of lack of sleep, you may be able to focus on prevention in addition to symptom management.
Some ways to prevent acute headaches may include:
- Avoid any triggers that may be related to your headaches. If you aren’t sure, you can try eliminating certain things to see if the results change. Common triggers include exposure to chemicals, going to high altitudes, or not getting enough sleep. It can be important to create a regular sleep schedule and avoid electronic devices before bedtime.
- Eliminate smoking, as nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars are known to trigger or worsen headaches. E-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine, so they are not usually good alternatives.
- Limit alcohol, as it can trigger or worsen headaches. It is especially important to never drink alcohol during a cluster headache. For other types of headaches, you can work with your doctor to determine how much alcohol is safe to drink and when.
- If your healthcare provider gives you the go-ahead to exercise, it can help reduce tension and relieve headache pain. Thirty minutes of physical activity 5 days a week is a good goal, even if it is as simple as walking.
Treatment Options for Acute Headaches
When acute headaches are found to be linked to a certain event or illness, they can be treated in order to reduce the frequency of headaches. In many cases, symptom management is the primary form of treatment, though doctors may also provide medication beyond over-the-counter options.
It may also be beneficial to manage stress through various treatment options, like cognitive behavior therapy. Biofeedback can also be used to manage stress. During this treatment, electrodes are placed on the body and attached to a monitor with the goal of learning to manage and change stress reactions.
The most common types of acute headaches to require further medical attention are migraine headaches, as they can be severe and impact quality of life or even render someone unable to work. Medications such as triptans, anti-nausea medications, opioids, and prednisone may be prescribed. In some cases, medications like cardiovascular drugs, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, and Botox injections have been shown to help as well.
When to Seek Care for Acute Headaches
Many people will have headaches, especially tension headaches, on rare occasions. However, it is not normal to have them consistently or be in severe pain. You should speak with a doctor if you:
- Have a constant headache
- Are vomiting during headaches
- Have a headache every day that does not improve with home remedies
- You experience changes in normal headache patterns or a new symptom
You should seek immediate care if you:
- Are in severe pain
- Have numbness or weakness on one side of your body or face
- Have a headache after a blow to the head, fall, or other trauma
- Are forgetful or confused, or have trouble speaking
- Have a headache, stiff neck, and fever simultaneously
At AICA Marietta, we see patients with headaches in a variety of scenarios. Whether you have been living with chronic pain from headaches or have recently been in a car accident, AICA Marietta will be able to assess your condition and create a plan of action. With onsite diagnostic imaging and a combination of neurologists, pain management specialists, and physical therapists, your treatment plan will be developed holistically with the goal of reducing pain and maintaining your overall health.