Headaches or the more debilitating migraines can disrupt daily activities – while they may stem from various causes that are treatable, medical experts at Sunway Medical Centre Velocity (SMCV) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, say that worsening headaches or migraines may point to an underlying condition.
Tension headaches, the most prevalent type of headache in Malaysia (26.5%), and migraines (9.0%) have the potential to turn into chronic headaches, according to Dr. Kok Chin Yong, Consultant Neurologist and Internal Medicine Physician from SMCV.
“Chronic headaches are defined as headaches that last 15 days or more in a month, for more than three months,” Dr. Kok said. “Chronic headaches should not be taken lightly – while it may not always be a marker of something serious, one should seek medical attention if the headache is accompanied by other symptoms such as numbness, weakness, difficulty speaking and walking, visual disturbance, fever and loss of weight.”
Dr Kok went on to explain how most patients experience episodic headaches that come and go, with some needing little to no painkillers to manage the pain. Half of patients with chronic headaches may also suffer from what is called a medication overuse headache (MOH), which is often underdiagnosed but can be treated by managing the usage of painkillers to reduce its severity.
“Migraines can affect one’s life and work. It can worsen with physical activity, affecting focus and concentration that in return reduces one’s efficiency at their workplace. Episodic migraines can be prevented from turning into chronic migraines by taking good preventative medications and making lifestyle changes,” added Dr. Kok.
These lifestyle changes include regular exercise, managing stress levels, and getting proper hours of sleep.
“Non-drug strategies are crucial as they can worsen and trigger migraines. One needs at least seven hours of good quality sleep – do not consume alcohol in order to sleep or take caffeine later than 3pm as it affects your sleep quality. High screen time can also trigger migraines especially in young adults, and these patients are sensitive to lights and flickering sound, which can also worsen the migraines.
“The key to prevent migraines is regularity. Patients with migraines need to have a regular eating and sleeping time, as a lack of it can trigger migraine attacks. If someone has high frequency of migraine attacks, one must be aware that there are good and effective preventative medications to reduce the burden. Some come in the form of pills and some in the form of injections [which are] very easily administered and can reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks.”
As for constant headaches and migraines as indicators of more serious health issues, SMCV Consultant Neurosurgeon Dr. Gerard Arvind Martin revealed that some headaches can be signs of tumours or other such anomalies, which are fatal if left untreated.
“We have seen this to be especially true for those whose headaches are caused by tumours or vascular conditions such as aneurysms. A tumour may announce itself by affecting that specific area it is pressing against or developing in, therefore causing symptoms related to that part of the brain. A growing tumour may grow, either quickly or slowly over time, and push aside the brain, causing the brain to react to tumour tissue and brain swelling occurs, and headache ensues,” said Dr. Martin.
Aside from these headaches, patients should also look out for effects in other neurological functions such as impairment of decision-making, thinking, and memory. The presence of a seizure, either before, during, or after the onset of headaches can also be an accompanying feature to brain tumours.
“While it is alarming to think that [headaches] are always caused by something sinister occurring within ones’ head, the truth is that headaches can also be caused by other parts of the head such as the eyes, ears, neck, the sinuses, or even teeth. Therefore, it is a good practise to rule out anything occurring in these areas as well during an initial consultation.
“Those who act upon their symptoms in a timely manner and get themselves treated are able to mitigate their conditions and, depending on the diagnosis, able to continue to lead fuller lives,” Dr. Martin concluded.