Headache Treatments : How to Relieve a Sinus Headache Naturally
Is It a Sinus Headache?
Many people blame their headaches on sinus pain and congestion — but more often than not, it's just a regular old headache. Do you know how to tell if your pain really signals a sinus headache?
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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It’s a rare occurrence that a sinus headache is accurately self-diagnosed. Even when you have sinus pain and nasal congestion with your headache, you shouldn’t automatically reach for sinus pain medication — there’s a good chance it won’t help.
"Sinus headache is almost a meaningless term," says Martin Citardi, MD, chairman of the department of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. "About 80 to 90 percent of headache cases sent to our ear, nose, and throat clinic for sinus headache evaluation turn out to be migraine."
Tension, migraine, and other headache syndromes are often confused with sinus headaches, adds Mark A. Zacharek, MD, residency program director for the department of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
So how can you tell the difference? Here are the facts about types of headaches unrelated to sinus problems:
- Tension headaches.These are the most common type of headache. About 80 to 90 percent of people are affected by tension headaches at some point. Tension headaches are more common in women and are caused by muscle tightness. You may feel the pain of a tension headache in your head or in your neck. Muscle tightness can be caused by stress or by holding your head in an unnatural position for too long.
- Migraine headaches.Migraines occur in about 17 percent of the population and are also more common in women. "Migraine headaches often tend to be one-sided and associated with light sensitivity. Migraines are more severe than sinus headaches and symptoms may include nausea and vomiting," says Dr. Zacharek. Migraine headache pain is felt as a throbbing pain and tends to get worse with activity.
- Less common types of headaches.Cluster headaches affect less than one percent of the population and cause a very severe one-sided headache that is more common in men and occurs in cycles. Also, "If a headache is the 'most severe headache' that a patient has ever had, it should be evaluated more urgently, in that this may be representative of a subarachnoid hemorrhage — a bleeding into a layer covering the brain. This requires urgent neurosurgical evaluation and drainage," says Zacharek.
What Causes a Sinus Headache?
A true sinus headache is caused by an obstruction of normal sinus drainage. This allows mucus to build up inside your sinuses. The mucus that gets trapped in your sinuses is a good breeding ground for bacteria and other germs that can lead to sinusitis. "Sinus headaches are almost always caused by nasal or sinus obstruction that starts with an infection or an allergy," says Dr. Citardi.
"Sinus headaches that are associated with allergies may include seasonal symptoms of hay fever such as congestion, sneezing, itching, and runny nose," says Zacharek. Sinus headaches caused by a sinus infection often include symptoms such as thick discolored nasal discharge, decreased sense of smell, pain over your upper teeth, sinus pressure, and fever.
Here are some other sinus headache symptoms:
- Pain in the front of your face or behind your eyes
- Headache that gets worse when you bend over
- Sinus pain that is worse in the morning and gets better later in the day
- Pain that is worse in damp, cold weather
- Pain that follows a head cold that has not cleared after 7 to 10 days
Four Effective Treatments for Sinus Headaches
The best way to ease sinus headache pain is to determine the underlying cause of your congestion. "The sinus headache caused by allergies is often responsive to nasal decongestants and antihistamines,” says Zacharek. “These treatments must be reviewed by a physician because the medications may aggravate hypertension and other medical problems."
Sinus headache treatments include:
- Antibiotics.If your sinus headaches are caused by a bacterial infection, treatment will require antibiotics.
- Nasal steroid sprays.These can be used to reduce swelling in your nose and relieve sinus congestion for sinus headaches due to infection or allergy.
- Home remedies.Irrigating the nose and sinuses and increasing the humidity in the air you breathe can help sinus headaches. "Gentle sinus irrigations with sterile saline are very beneficial," advises Zacharek.
- Surgery.In some cases, sinus headaches due to chronic sinus disease require surgery. Surgical procedures to remove diseased sinus tissue and restore normal sinus drainage can be done as an outpatient procedure and are usually successful.
Though sinus headaches do occur, they are less common than tension headaches and migraines. If you have symptoms of a sinus headache or sinus pain, you should see your doctor to find the cause. "Consultation with an ear, nose, and throat specialist, as well as a neurologist, may be necessary for more difficult-to-treat sinus headaches," says Citardi.
Video: Headache Treatments : How to Tell if You Have a Sinus Headache
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