Headaches – Why Do We Get Them and Related Facts

by | May 2, 2019


Where Do Headaches Come From?

Headaches don’t occur in the brain. The brain has no nerves that can register pain – which is how some brain surgeries can occur with the patient awake – cutting the brain causes no pain or other sensations. 

So, where does the pain come from? According to Scientific American, “Head pain instead occurs because of activation or irritation of structures that do sense pain: skin, bone or neck joints, sinuses, blood vessels or muscles.” Thus, there are multiple structures that can cause headache pain. Doctors aren’t complexly sure what causes most headaches. According to Harvard Medical School, there are over 300 types of headaches but only about 10% of them have a known cause. Different types of headaches often have different triggers.

Two Classifications of Headaches

According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Headaches are classified as primary or secondary.

  • A primary headache means the headache itself is the main medical problem, although other factors, such as muscle tension or exposure to certain foods, may be identified. Other contributing factors include medicines, dehydration, or hormone changes.
  • A secondary headache is related to an underlying medical condition. An example of this would be a headache due to neck injury, eye problems, jaw, teeth or sinus infection.

Tension Headaches

Tension Headaches: These are the most common type of headache and are typically triggered by stress and muscle is tightness. According to Harvard, “The typical tension headache produces a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. People with strong tension headaches may feel like their head is in a vise. The shoulders and neck can also ache. Some tension headaches are triggered by fatigue, emotional stress, or problems involving the muscles or joints of the neck or jaw. Most last for 20 minutes to two hours.”

Migraines Suck!

Migraines: these are horrible and severe headaches often accompanied by symptoms besides just head pain, such as light sensitivity, sensitivity to sounds, nausea, and lightheadedness.

From Hopkins: “Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in the brain’s blood flow and nerve cell activity. Genetics play a role since 70% of migraine victims have at least one close relative with the problem.”

Triggers for migraines vary sufferer to sufferer.  Some startling statistics on migraines from the Migraine Research Foundation:

  • Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households includes someone with migraine.
  • Amazingly, 12% of the population – including children – suffers from migraine.
  • 18% of American women, 6% of men, and 10% of children experience migraines.
  • Migraine is most common between the ages of 25 and 55.
  • Migraine tends to run in families. About 90% of migraine sufferers have a family history of migraine.
  • Migraine is the 6th most disabling illness in the world.
  • Every 10 seconds, someone in the U.S. goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain, and approximately 1.2 million visits are for acute migraine attacks.
  • While most sufferers experience attacks once or twice a month, more than 4 million people have chronic daily migraine, with at least 15 migraine days per month.
  • More than 90% of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during their migraine.
  • More than 4 million adults experience chronic daily migraine – with at least 15 migraine days per month.
  • Over 20% of chronic migraine sufferers are disabled, and the likelihood of disability increases sharply with the number of comorbid conditions.

How Does Tylenol (Acetaminophen) Work?

Acetaminophen was first prepared in 1878 and was first sold over the counter in the US in 1960.

Shockingly, scientists aren’t quite sure how acetaminophen works. There have been many theories over the decades, but none have been conclusive. If you are scientific-minded, here’s an article detailing the various theories about how it works.

Note that acetaminophen can be very dangerous and taking more than the recommended dose or even taking the recommended dose and then consuming alcohol can cause grave liver damage. Be careful that when sick you don’t take pain tablets and then also take cold medicine that contains acetaminophen. It’s easy to do because acetaminophen is found in so many over-the-counter products. “Approximately 30 to 50 percent of hospitalizations from acetaminophen come from unintentional overdoses,” said Jeffrey Yin, PharmD, a pharmacist at UC San Diego Health.


  1. We don’t know how aspirin works either. I believe it would not get FDA approved if it were introduced today.

  2. Not only do we not know how acetaminophen works, we are clueless concerning a unified theory of anesthesia. Regardless, there are millions of surgeries that utilize it annually, guided by empirical results rather than solid understanding. Lots of dark holes in medicine.


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