Christmas headaches unwrapped – what they mean and how to ease your pain

The voice of Noddy Holder blaring in every shop gives us all pounding heads in the run-up to Christmas. And even without the festive stresses, pandemic woes have been causing the familiar throbbing.

A study for Nurofen found 34% of those experiencing an increase in pain during Covid times pinpointed headaches as the culprit.

Other figures show half of us get at least one headache a year, while 10 million of us suffer regularly with a pain in our head or face.

Here’s the lowdown about this common complaint…

Stress-related pains

The festivities can be stressful, which can cause tension headaches. Other triggers include poor posture or dehydration. They last from 15 minutes to several hours, typically causing pain in your forehead and temples. Not usually severe, they can be simply treated with a dose of over-the-counter painkillers.

Migraine matters

Affecting nine million people in the UK and lasting up to 72 hours, these more painful headaches are often combined with other symptoms, such as pain in the face or neck, sensitivity to light and nausea. Check yours at migrainetrust.org.

Women get more migraines than men, and experts think your genes could make you more susceptible. If migraines persist, contact your GP for stronger painkillers.

Cluster busters

This is a rare type of headache that often affects one side of the head. They typically last from 15 minutes to three hours, and can occur several times a day for weeks or months on end. They are more painful than a migraine, so see your GP for stronger painkillers if you’re affected. You can also discuss oxygen therapy as a treatment.

Sore it coming

A lot of us do get ill in the weeks before Christmas and conditions such as a cold, sinusitis or the flu can cause a headache. Plus at least 5 million women in the UK experience hormone-related headaches linked to their periods.

Headaches can also be a side-effect of medication – even painkillers if they’re used too often. A headache is now one of the most commonly reported symptoms of Covid, too.

Weather warnings

Changes in the weather can be a trigger for headaches and migraines. Heat, high humidity and storms can all bring on pain. The NHS explains that changes in air pressure trigger chemical and electrical changes in the brain.

Food culprits

Watch out for rich Christmas foods as some people report citrus fruits, cured meats and certain cheeses trigger their migraines. Christmas also means chocolate, but eating a lot of sugar in a short amount of time can give you a “sugar hangover”, and with it a banging headache due to hormones activated by the sudden rise in glucose. Treats containing less than 5% sugar (eg 70% dark chocolate) are advised.

Brain freeze

Indulging in a cold eggnog or ice cream can bring on a short, sharp headache, according to researchers, due to the effect the cold has on blood flow. But it usually passes quickly.

Everyday triggers

Lots of factors can spark headaches, including certain smells such as perfume, too much alcohol, caffeine withdrawal, exercise, vision problems and grinding your teeth. Even relaxing after a period of hard work can cause one as stress hormones plummet and release neuro-transmitters that cause blood vessels to constrict and dilate.

Sex headaches

We don’t mean fabricated headaches to avoid sex! These are harmless but distressing post-coital headaches that come on at the “height of passion” according to nhs.uk.

A result of pressure building up in the head and neck muscles, they can occur just prior to orgasm, and may last up to an hour. Taking a painkiller a few hours beforehand can help – but kills spontaneity, of course.

Eye Ache

Ocular (or retinal) migraines often cause partial or total loss of vision in one eye, along with a headache before, during or after an attack. Giles Edmonds, Specsavers’ clinical services director, says, “Vision may become dimmed or blurred and some people experience flashes of light or blank spots which can expand to patches of vision loss.”

Triggers include exercise, smoking and even bending over. If your eyesight has deteriorated suddenly, make an emergency appointment with your optician.

• Any alternative remedies?

There’s evidence that acupuncture can help prevent migraine, while a US study found a daily portion of oily fish could ward off headaches, thanks to the omega-3 content.

• Could it be a brain tumour?

Cancer Research UK advises that it’s unlikely you have a brain tumour if a headache is your only symptom. But if you have other symptoms, such as nausea, sickness, eye problems or pain that’s getting steadily worse,
then get checked out.

• When is it an emergency?

A headache can sometimes be a symptom of a life-threatening condition, such as meningitis or stroke. If you get an extremely painful headache that comes on suddenly, seek urgent medical advice by calling 111 or 999.

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