10 Surprising Facts About Headaches

Did you know that sex can give you a bad headache? How about that three gene variations linked to migraines have been discovered? And that most sinus headaches are really migraines?

Research is zeroing in on a source of pain we’ve all felt at one time or another, whether it’s a dull aching pain or a tension headache, the throbbing of a migraine or a pounding hangover headache after a big night out. Here’s the rundown of 10 things you may not know about headaches - and how to avoid them: 

Explore the head in 3D and learn where headaches affect you. 

1. Sinus Headaches Are Rare: Nasal and sinus congestion, facial pain and pressure, and a headache usually don’t add up to a sinus headache. Headache specialists say that “true” sinus headaches are rare. In a study with almost 3,000 patients who had at least six “sinus headaches” in the previous six months, medical evaluations showed that 88 percent actually had migraines. In another study, 45 percent of migraine patients had either nasal congestion or watery eyes. Tipoff: it’s probably migraine if in addition to “sinus” symptoms, you’re nauseous, sensitive to light or noise and if the headache throbs and worsens with activity. 

2. Processing 3D Images Causes Brain Strain: A Northwestern University ophthalmology professor warns that a large segment of the population may develop a headache and nausea while watching 3D movies. This is due to the brain strain involved with processing the three dimensional images - the more an image jumps out at you, the more effort your brain must make to fuse the pictures together, says Northwestern University's Michael A. Rosenberg, MD. 

3. Take-Off and Landing Lead to Headaches: No, this has nothing to do with the aggravation of cancelled flights or long delays. Instead, sudden, severe, stabbing headaches during a plane’s ascent or descent are being reported. Doctors haven’t figured out yet what causes them. Luckily, the pain lasts only about 20 minutes. 

4. Bug Spray Prompts Headaches: It’s not the bugs but exposure to insecticides used to kill them that causes these headaches (plus dizziness, trouble breathing, nausea and vomiting). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cases required no medical treatment, but one death has been reported and 18 percent of those exposed to the insecticides required medical attention.    

5. High Cholesterol Causes Headaches: You may not have to worry unless you’re in your late 60s or older and have migraines with aura (the flashing lights, tingling and other signs of a headache’s approach that about one-third of migraine patients report). A recent study found a link between migraine with aura and high cholesterol in seniors. Migraine with aura has also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Need to lower your cholesterol? Let's start with what's on your plate.

6. Headaches Might Be Genetic: Researchers have pinpointed three genetic variations linked to an increased risk of migraines. One is involved in sensing cold and pain, another is linked to several processes including signaling in nerve cells (neurons). The role of the third isn’t yet known. Each of the gene variations identified alters the risk for migraines by 10 to 15 percent. 

7. Alcohol, As a Trigger, Is Overstated: Research from Italy suggests that the role of alcohol and some foods in triggering migraines has been overstated. Instead, the investigators found that stress, fatigue and in women, menstruation are most often the culprits. They suggested that migraine patients who want to drink alcohol could try small amounts of specific types to see what they can tolerate. 

8. Botox Can Treat Headaches: Best known as a wrinkle remover, Botox also can put the brakes on chronic migraines (those that occur 15 days per month or more). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of Botox for migraine prevention. Injections seem to cut down on headaches, although studies suggest that Botox doesn’t work as well as some prescription drugs.  Researchers still haven’t figured out how Botox staves off the headaches, but they do know that effects last only about three months before patients have to be re-injected. 

9. The Battlefield Has Created a New Type of Headache: About one third of the soldiers returning from Iraq are bringing with them a new type of chronic migraine caused by nerve damage or the pressure from bomb blast waves. While these headaches are still being studied, treatments include rest, avoiding migraine triggers, stress management and changes of diet.

10. Sex Causes Headaches: Here’s a surprise: men are more likely to get these types of headaches than women. According to the American Headache Society, two types of headaches are related to sexual activity: a dull ache that develops as the sex act increases or a severe one that strikes as orgasm nears. Experts say it’s best to check with your doctor the first time you get one of these headaches. Hint: performance-enhancing drugs can bring on headaches in men who have migraines

Learn more about different types of headaches and how to prevent them.