What is the Number One Cause of Headaches? [+ What to Do]

by Eric Bostrom June 17, 2022 5 min read

What is the Number One Cause of Headaches? [+ What to Do]

We’ve been living in a pandemic now for almost a year, and for many of us, our lifestyles have been forced to change quickly and suddenly with little preparation. 

As humans, what happens to us physiologically when change is set upon us when we’re not ready? Stress, of course. And what’s a byproduct of stress? Headaches.  

Unlike some of the past topics I’ve talked about across the Backmate Blog, headaches are one of those things we can all relate to. We’ve all had them before, we can all relate to how painful they are, and the most unfortunate among us have suffered some serious and debilitating effects of headaches—myself included. 

In case you didn’t know, I was a professional motorcycle racer in a past life, and a big crash left me with crippling headaches at times that left me bedridden and in agony. In fact, the long and windy journey to recover from my injuries was the genesis for The Backmate. But that’s a topic I’ve talked about before.

Of course, stress and injuries aren’t the only cause of headaches. Depression and anxiety are other biological factors. Even things like diet and the weather can be a trigger for some! 

For this post, we’re going to explore the two different types of headaches—primary headaches and secondary headaches—what causes them, and what we can do about them.

What is the Number One Cause of Headaches? [+ What to Do]

Primary Headaches Types 

A primary headache occurs because the pain-sensitive structures in your head are overactive or dealing with a problem. It is not a sign of another underlying illness. As you know, there’s a lot going on in your head, neurologically and physiologically. Increased chemical activity in your brain or overuse of your blood vessels, nerves, and even the muscles surrounding your head can all be causes of a primary headache.

Common forms of primary headache include:

  • Cluster headache: As the name suggests, cluster headaches occur in patterns—or clusters—and are very painful and intense. They can last anywhere from weeks to months. The pain usually starts right behind an eye, then spreads elsewhere. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the causes of cluster headaches and research is difficult because they occur so suddenly and with little to no warning.
  • Rebound headache: Also called medication overuse headaches, these headaches form a cruel cycle and begin when you overuse pain medication to treat your headache. The good news is that we know overusing medication is what starts the chain of events in a rebound headache. The difficult part is sticking to a lifestyle change that weans you off the medication to bring your body back to equilibrium. 
  • Migraine: The second-most common form of headache, migraines are usually felt in a throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain can be so bad that you experience bouts of nausea or vomiting and are sensitive to light and loud noises. We don’t fully understand migraines from a medical perspective, but the medical community is in general agreement that genetics and your environment play a role.  
  • Tension headache: By far the most common, 90% of headaches are tension headaches. The most common type of headache, the tension headache is best described as mild pain, like two giant hands are lightly squeezing your head. For many, tension headaches are dull enough to be manageable with healthy lifestyle choices and massage (Backmate, anyone?). 

Secondary Headaches

Unlike primary headaches, secondary headaches are a symptom of another problem. This other ailment triggers the pain receptors in your head which causes the headache. One of the most common types of secondary headaches is the sinus headache, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with. But other types of secondary headaches can come from wearing tight headgear (like a helmet), eating cold food rapidly (the dreaded brain freeze!), or overusing medication (yes, it can be both a primary or secondary headache depending on certain factors). 

More serious types of secondary headaches include spinal headaches and thunderclap headaches. The former happens when you don’t have enough cerebrospinal fluid, which can happen as a result of a leak, a spinal tap, or spinal anesthesia, like an epidural. The latter is another serious issue that involves debilitating headaches that come on without warning. 

Now, this is the part of this post that sounds scary and alarming because as we said earlier, secondary headaches are a symptom of an underlying issue. What might that issue be? It could be any number of things, including but not limited to:

  • Brain aneurysms
  • Brain tumor
  • Concussion
  • Coronavirus
  • Dehydration
  • Ear infection
  • Hangovers
  • High blood pressure
  • Flu
  • Stroke

Again, this is just a tiny list of things a secondary headache could be pointing to. As you can see, some of these conditions are relatively minor. Of course, many of these conditions are very serious. 

Secondary Headaches

What You Can Do

Now that I’ve likely scared some of you, the next question becomes: What can I do? There’s good and bad news. The bad news is obviously we can’t prevent all headaches. We’re all going to experience stress at one point or another. Worse yet, some of the underlying issues that headaches are a sign of we simply can’t predict or account for until they occur. 

However, for the most part, these instances are rare, and the GOOD news is there’s still a lot we can do to mitigate our headaches. Especially the primary ones.

First and foremost is committing to leading a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Simple things like getting enough sleep at night and staying active with exercise can make a big difference. Drinking plenty of water is said a lot, but it’s for good reason. 

Speaking of drinking, I know some of us like a nice adult drink at the end of the day to wind down, but like most things in life, moderation is key. If you’re prone to cluster headaches, then avoiding alcohol altogether is a smart choice. 

If you suffer from tension headaches, then a key to keeping them under control is to find methods and techniques to relax. Since this throbbing pain can sometimes occur due to tension in the muscles surrounding the head and neck, we can work backward from the source of the pain to find solutions. 

I’ve mentioned it in past articles, but a focus on ergonomics and posture is key. Many of us sit at desks and/or stare at our phones all day, and the strain on our neck and shoulders from tilting our heads causes tightness that, over time, can lead to headaches. So repositioning our equipment will help align the head and neck and help loosen the shoulders. 

The number of things we can engage in to relax is immense. Things like yoga, meditation, and even concentrating on deep breathing all work. Of course, you know I’m going to end with massage and self-care with The Backmate.

The reasoning is simple: loose muscles are happy muscles that aren’t pulling on other parts of the body. You can achieve that through massage. Not to mention the obvious: getting a massage feels great. 

The Backmate is an excellent tool to massage and loosen the neck and shoulder muscles. Being able to stand while doing it means those muscles can be as relaxed as possible during the massage, which helps you get even deeper.

Better still, since we all lead busy lives, you don’t need a lot of time to do it – 15 minutes and you can cover your neck, back, heck… your entire body!

A universal topic like headaches is relatable on so many levels because we’ve all experienced it. Hopefully, after reading this you have a better understanding of the different kinds of headaches and what they could possibly mean. 

It’s also my hope that this has inspired you to make some tweaks to your lifestyle to help keep some of the causes of headaches at bay. Like most things in life, the answer comes down to healthy choices, active lifestyles, and adequate self-care. I’m here to give you tips and encouragement. 

As always, yours in good health.

- Eric

Eric Bostrom
Eric Bostrom