A Glossary of Headache Terminology


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ABDOMINAL MIGRAINE - a type of migraine in which the pain is not located in the head but rather in the upper part of the abdomen. The pain lasts only a few hours. Those afflicted with abdominal migraine are usually children, mostly girls with a family history of migraine. Like migraine headaches, the attacks of abdominal migraine are recurrent and are often accompanied by a headache.

ACUPUNCTURE - acupuncture is an ancient Chinese remedy for a variety of illnesses. It is based on the theory that by stimulating nerves one can block pain. The puncture acts as a counterirritant to stop the painful impulses from radiating up the spinal cord. Some patients have responded to the use of acupuncture in headache treatment, but the overall results have been varied.

ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES - many non-drug approaches are beneficial to headache sufferers and can help them achieve a pain-free lifestyle. Though these approaches are often non-invasive, they are not without side effects. Watch the cost factor as these therapies tend not to be covered by health plans.

ANALGESIC - pain-relieving medication such as Tylenol, Fiorinal and ASA.

ANEURYSM - an aneurysm is a weakness in the wall of a blood vessel, which at some critical point may balloon out and rupture. Unless the aneurysm is large, patients will rarely exhibit symptoms unless it ruptures. It is essential to take a complete history of a patient with a sudden onset of headache, as it may mean aneurysm. The symptoms of chronic headaches, including migraine, however, do not resemble the symptoms of a ruptured aneurysm.

ANTICONVULSANTS - or anti-seizure medication is sometimes used for migraine after other therapies have been tried. Researchers have shown interest in anticonvulsants such as valproic acid (Depakene) and divalproex sodium (Epival). Further studies are needed to investigate the possible effectiveness of these preparations, but early reports seem promising.

ANTIDEPRESSANTS - medications used for depression. For patients with chronic headache, these drugs are useful for their mood-altering properties as well as their analgesic actions. The drugs are especially helpful for those headache patients with a sleep disturbance. They are used as a preventative treatment for migraines as well as tension headaches.

AURA - neurological events which sometimes happen before a migraine attack, such as flickering lights or black spots in the field of vision, strange smells, vertigo or nausea.

BETA BLOCKERS - block the action of certain substances, such as adrenaline, found in the body. Previously used in the treatment of hypertension and cardiac problems, these drugs have demonstrated their effectiveness in preventing migraine. Propranolol is a very common beta blocker. 

BIOFEEDBACK - a technique that trains the patient to control a previously unused or involuntary function of the body (i.e. heart rate). It is very effective with migraine and tension headaches. Control is achieved through training with a monitor that measures bodily functions. The monitor then feeds back information about the bodily function and through different methods (i.e. diaphragmatic breathing), the patient can control particular function.

CALCIUM CHANNEL BLOCKERS - used for heart disease and for patients recovering from stroke, these drugs stablize the cranial blood vessels. Expansion of the blood vessels is acknowledged as a factor in migraine.


CHIROPRACTIC THERAPY - based on the theory that most diseases of the body are a result of misalignment of the vertebral column with pressure on adjacent nerves.

CHRONIC DAILY HEADACHE - an umbrella term that includes 4 primary headache entities: chronic/transformational migraine; chronic tension-type headache; new daily persistent headache; and hemicrania continua. By definition, these headaches occur more than 15 days per month and are very often associated with medication overuse.

CHRONIC PAROXYSMAL HEMICRANIA - this is much more common in women than in men. The pain is always one-sided and lasts 5-10 minutes. Twelve or more attacks are experienced by sufferers. This is very similar to cluster headaches.

CLUSTER HEADACHE - a type of vascular headache that occurs in series or groups. They occur more often in males and are characterized by their one-sided locations. Usually around one eye, and very brief duration, anywhere from a few minutes to one or two hours. A patient can experience several headaches per day for a period of one to several months. The chronic form is called chronic cluster headaches. Oxygen and verapmil are common treatments.

CT SCAN - computerized axial tomography uses a computer that merges many x-rays from several angles into a single picture. A CT scan can be performed with or without a contrasting dye. The dye can be used to help identify a brain tumor or blood clot inside the brain. They are used frequently for headache patients to rule out an organic basis for their headache.

DHE (DIHYDROERGOTAMINE) - an intervenous treatment used by headache doctors to break the cycle of head pain, in inpatient headache treatment centres.

EEG (ELECTROENCEPHALOGRAPHY) - shows certain disturbances of brain functions, irregularities of rhythm, the presence of seizure-like activity and the effects of drugs or other metabolic disturbances on the nervous system.

ENDORPHIN / ENKEPHALIN - your body's natural painkillers. They are found throughout the body. Their discovery has led to many new ways of relieving pain.

HEADACHES AFTER HEAD INJURY (or POST TRAUMATIC HEADACHE) - headaches after head injuries are a common, valid complaint among car accident victims and should not be viewed as psychological but rather as a consequence of the physical trauma of the accident. The pain features of post-traumatic headaches usually resemble those of tension-type headaches - only occasionally migraine type pain. It is common for these headaches to gradually clear up within six months to two years of the trauma, but in some cases the symptoms can be more or less permanent. Consult a headache neurologist.

HEADACHES IN CHILDREN - child sufferers are not as common as adult sufferers. These headaches often get better over time. Tension-type pain usually bears a close and clear relationship to stress at school or home. Nausea and vomiting are usually present in children migraine, and the child often experiences relief following vomiting.

HOT DOG HEADACHE - hot dogs and smoked meats such as salami contain sodium nitrite. This additive is used to preserve the colour of the meat and to prevent botulism. Nitrites cause blood vessels to swell, and patients with migraine headache are especially sensitive to foods containing these substances. The headache will usually appear within forty-five minutes of ingesting the food item.

ICE CREAM HEADACHE - this type of headache will occur when a cold substance is positioned against the back part of the roof of the mouth. It can result from ice cream or any other cold substance. The pain is very brief, lasting only a few minutes, and will be noted over the throat, head or face. It can be very excruciating. Migraine patients may be more prone to this occurance.

MASSAGE THERAPY - this treatment method involves the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body (skin, muscles and the structures contained therein) for therapeutic effect. Massage theraphy is believed to create a feeling of wellness through assisting blood flow. Consult with a registered message therapist (RMT) who is fully qualified to offer assistance.

MEDICATION OVERUSE HEADACHES (formerly REBOUND HEADACHE or MEDICATION-INDUCED HEADACHES) - a headache disorder caused by the regular overuse of pain-relieving ergot-containing medications, triptans or caffeine.

MENSTRUAL MIGRAINE - these are migraine attacks associated with the menstrual cycle. They are linked to changing levels of estrogen and progesterone. Headaches can occur immediately before menses, during the menstrual flow, or after menses. Some may suffer from migraine at the time of ovulation. NSAIDS, and other treatments, are used two days before menses and continuing throughout the flow.

MIGRAINE - a recurring headache that occurs one or more times per month and can last up to seventy-two hours. A one-sided headache described as pounding or throbbing, and of moderate to incapacitating severity. Migraine is sometimes termed a "sick" headache since it is related to nausea, vomiting and light sensitivity. Some experience migraine with aura, with warning symptoms before the attack.

MIGRAINE WITH AURA (CLASSIC MIGRAINE) - suffers who experience this headache will have a past history of an acute headache followed by a neurological symptom, like visual disturbance. An aura does not always precede every migraine attack. Older patients sometimes note that their headaches have disappeared, but that they still have aura symptoms.

MIGRAINE WITHOUT AURA (COMMON MIGRAINE) - sufferers with common migraine have never experienced the neurological warning signs of an aura. They may be able to predict an imminent headache by vague premonitory signs like fatigue or bursts of energy, increased or decreased appetite or anxiety. Some studies suggest 80% of migraine sufferers have a migraine without aura.

MRI (MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING) - a strong magnet can show physicians thousands of views of the brain; a computer blends these pictures to produce an image of the brain. There are less risks with MRI than a CT scan, and an MRI can be performed without the injection of dye.

MSG (MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE) - is used as a flavour enhancer in some foods, including processed meat, meat tenderizers and some Chinese cuisine. MSG can cause headaches and other symptoms in susceptible people within thirty minutes of ingestion. Symptoms, besides headache, include: sweating, chest tightness and pressure over the face and chest. Migraine patients may be especially sensitive to foods containing MSG.

NEURALGIA - pain arising from a specific nerve branch.

NEUROTRANSMITTERS - chemical messengers in the brain that are used to pass information between important areas of the nervous system. Serotonin has been profiled as the main chemical lacking in migraine sufferers and many modern treatments mimic serotonin action in the brain.

OTC - Over-the-counter drugs or pain remedies.

PHONOPHOBIA - a heightened sensitivity to sound.

PHOTOPHOBIA - a heightened sensitivity to light.

PROPHYLACTIC MEDICATION - a class of medicines that is taken on a daily basis to help correct the chemical imbalances in the brain which underpin the migraine. Prophylactic medication can reduce an individual's susceptibility to and frequency of migraine attacks.

SEROTONIN - a chemical substance that is most often found in the platelet and is believed to be involved in migraine attacks. Headache research is directed to those agents that will block the receptors for seratonin.

SINUS HEADACHE - these are caused by the inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the sinuses in the head. Many migraineurs falsely believe they have sinus headache because they experience pain in the facial and nasal areas.

SLEEP APNEA - sometimes sufferers awaken with a headache. Breathing improperly during sleep at night can suggest this condition. People who are obese and people with lung disease are prone to sleep apnea. Studies prove sleep disorders and headaches can affect one another. Please refer to the "Free Articles" button for an article on sleep disturbances and headache.

TENSION-TYPE HEADACHE - emotional factors such as stress are believed to be their triggers and are accompanied by pain in the neck and shoulders. They are caused by tightening of the muscles at the back of the neck and of the face and scalp. Episodic forms of tension headaches can be controlled by over-the-counter analgesics, but sometimes require more involved treatment. Please consult with a headache neurologist. Chronic forms occur on a daily or close to daily basis. Headaches are two-sided and described as a tight band vice-like ache. Chronic tension type headaches can be caused by anxiety or depression. The vast majority of headaches are tension type headaches.

TMJ (TEMPOROMANDIBULAR JOINT DYSFUNCTION) - formed by the jawbone meeting the skull, and is just in front of the ear. Problems from this joint can cause headaches. Please consult with a headache neurologist before pursuing jaw surgery as pain experienced in the jaw can be referred from different locations. Please see "Headache: Did You Know" sign.

TRIGGERS - these can either be internal or external factors that can cause a migraine. What affects one person may not affect another. Examples of triggers are dietary triggers, hormonal factors, changes in usual routines, meal times and sleep times, stress or let-down periods from stress, and environmental factors like weather. If a trigger does not appear obvious, either in your diet or lifestyle, recognize that you may be headache-prone and the total elimination of suspected triggers may or may not help identify triggers.

TYRAMINE - a chemical found in aged cheese and other foods capable of causing a widening of blood vessels, causing migraine in susceptible people.

VASOCONSTRICTION - a decrease in the size of blood vessels.

VASODILATION - an increase in the size of blood vessels.


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