Think you're a victim of sinus headaches? Think again. According to research, there's no such thing. Read on to find out what else you didn't know about all that throbbing and pounding.
1. Fifty percent of people with migraines don't realize they have them.
Current stats show that more than 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraines, with three times as many women affected as men. This type of headache causes throbbing pain on one side of your head as well as nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light — but you don't have to experience all of these symptoms for the headache to be a migraine. "Many people mistakenly assume they're having tension headaches," says Jason Rosenberg, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center. If the pain is bad enough to make you skip work or other activities, definitely talk to your doctor. You may need a prescription drug in the triptan class (like Imitrex). For chronic migraines, you may also need to take a preventive medication (like nadolol, a beta-blocker) daily to ward off attacks.
2. There's no such thing as a "sinus headache."
Over 90% of people who think they have sinus headaches (not sinus infections) have migraines; the others are probably experiencing tension headaches. Migraine pain is often located over the sinuses, which is why people frequently mistake it for sinus pain, says Brian Grosberg, MD, a director at the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. If you get better with so-called "sinus" medications, it's because these contain a pain reliever. For long-term relief, you'll need specific migraine treatment.
3. What you eat could be to blame.
Many foods contain chemicals that can trigger migraines and possibly other types of headaches, says Dr. Grosberg. Some foods to watch out for: deli meats and hot dogs (which have nitrates), Chinese food (which may contain monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG) and sugar-free foods sweetened with aspartame or sucralose. If you're headacheprone, also avoid tyramine, a natural compound in foods such as citrus fruits, bananas, avocados, processed meats, aged cheeses, onions and nuts. Keep in mind that triggers are individual; track what you eat in a journal to sort it out.
4. Smokers are at higher risk for a rare but scary type of headache.
Only 1 in 1,000 people get cluster headaches, but they happen to smokers more often. Symptoms include intense pain on one side of the head and feeling agitated or angry (sufferers may even harm themselves or others). Think you're having a cluster headache? Go to your doctor's office or the ER immediately — you'll probably need an oxygen mask or an injection of Imitrex.
5. Some headaches warrant a visit to the ER.
If you experience any of these symptoms, a hospital visit may be in order: It's severe and comes on extremely suddenly (experts call this a "thunderclap"); it crops up immediately after exerting yourself (like after lifting a heavy piece of furniture); or it's so bad that it wakes you up from sleep. Any of these could indicate a life-threatening condition like an aneurysm (a ballooning blood vessel in the brain), so best get immediate attention.
6. Botox can treat migraine
Although Botox is best known as a cosmetic treatment for minimizing lines and wrinkles, headache specialists have successfully been using it "off-label" to treat painful and debilitating migraines for over 10 years, according to Peter McAllister, MD, clinical assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. Last year it finally received FDA approval specifically for the treatment of chronic migraines in adults. It's not a permanent fix — you'll need to return for additional injections about every three months — but it can be very effective. Experts believe that it works by blocking nerve signals that cause the pain. The downside: Each visit entails getting a total of 31 small injections in seven different spots around your head and neck, and no, they won't also make you look younger (the injection sites are different from those used for cosmetic treatment). You might also have a hard time getting your health insurance to pay for it. Currently, close to 50% of insurers won't cover Botox for migraines, and those that do tend to have some pretty strict criteria. The requirements can differ for each insurer, but you may have to suffer from at least 15 migraines a month, with each one lasting at least four hours.