Hemicrania continua or a unilateral headache is a rare type of headache that is characterized by pain on one side of the head or face. Unlike most headaches that come and go, hemicrania continua is a continuous headache. In other words, it never stops.
The name hemicrania continua literally translates to “pain in half the head” in Latin. Although the pain occurring with a unilateral headache never ceases, for the most part, the pain remains at a consistent level although there are times when that pain becomes more severe. While we can’t say why, statistics indicate that hemicrania continua headaches occur more often in women than men.
What are causes and symptoms of hemicrania continua?
Hemicrania continua causes are a source of much investigation because right now, there is no known cause and it can be difficult to diagnose. There is some evidence suggesting alcohol, physical activity, changes in sleep pattern, and bright light can make the symptoms worse. There are some medical professionals that are just learning about hemicrania continua since it is a condition that is somewhat newly discovered.
Hemicrania continua symptoms typically include a dull ache or throb that is interrupted by a pain that is described as jolting, sharp, or stabbing. These stabbing attacks can happen anywhere from three to five times a day. Some people can experience the headache for months or years. There are those who report the sharp pain goes away for a few weeks or even months but then returns. Check out the list below to get an idea of what it’s like to have hemicrania continua symptoms.
- Constant pain on one side of the head or face
- Long-term pain that occurs every day
- Tearing on the same side as the pain
- Eyelid drooping on the same side as the pain
- Runny nose
Hemicrania continua can also involve symptoms similar to migraines, including the signs listed below.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to noise or light
- Feeling lightheaded
- Blurred vision
- Double vision
- Throbbing pain
Those who suffer from hemicrania continua have complained about some of the symptoms associated with cluster headaches. The following are typical cluster headache symptoms:
- Tearing, redness, or irritation of the eyes
- Drooping eyelids
- Stuffy or runny nose
If you experience any headache symptoms that last longer than three days or you have headaches that occur once or twice every week, you should see a doctor. You should also consider seeing a physician if you find that you need to take over-the-counter medications frequently for headache pain, your headaches are making it difficult to function normally, a headache comes on suddenly and is severe, you experience confusion, stiff neck or fever with the headache, or if you have double vision, numbness, or speech problems along with the headache.
Diagnosing and treating hemicrania continua
There are no specific tests for diagnosing hemicrania continua. Right now, doctors have to look at the symptoms and use the process of elimination. Often, they rule out other types of headaches first. Since hemicrania continua pain is similar to other conditions, the doctor may order an MRI or CT scan to rule out certain ailments. To receive a diagnosis of hemicrania continua, a person must have constant pain that is on one side of the head and must have symptoms for at least three months or more.
There is no such thing as a hemicrania continua cure, but many sufferers get relief with a medication called indomethacin. In fact, many doctors will check to see if a patient’s pain responds to indomethacin before officially labeling the headaches hemicrania continua. Daily doses of this medication range from 25 to 200 milligrams, but there are side effects.
One common issue is irritation of the lining of the stomach and digestive tract. This means that people taking indomethacin might also have to take a medication to help their stomach produce less acid. There are cases where indomethacin is just too much for a person, so another anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed. There are also situations where tricyclic antidepressants can help prevent the headaches; however, they too can include side effects. Additionally, some patients respond well to nerve blocks.
Preventing hemicrania continua
As the old adage goes, “the best offense is a good defense.” Taking good care of yourself will lessen your chances of getting chronic headaches. Here are some tips for preventing headaches like hemicrania continua:
Avoid triggers: Keep a headache journal and include details about every headache. This will help you discover the triggers that make the severe pain more frequent.
Get sleep: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help lessen the stress on your body and is known to help people who suffer from chronic headaches.
Don’t skip meals: Eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Avoid foods that seem to trigger symptoms.
Exercise: Daily exercise can help your body release chemicals that block pain signals to the brain. Walking, swimming, biking, and jogging are good options.
Lower your stress: Develop techniques to cope with stressors in your life. Take time for yourself and think positive.
Don’t smoke: Smoking has been known to cause headaches or make them worse.
Hemicrania continua natural treatment
The idea of constantly having to take medication can be stressful. People who suffer from various types of headaches often look for other treatment options, and those who have unilateral headaches are no different. There are some hemicrania continua natural treatment alternatives that can be considered.
Acupuncture: This ancient technique uses thin needles to promote the release of natural chemicals in the central nervous system that can help control pain, including the pain associated with headaches.
Biofeedback: Headache sufferers can learn to control headaches with this relaxation technique that helps produce changes in the way a person responds to muscle tension, heart rate, and body temperature.
Hypnosis: Trained hypnotists can suggest ways to decrease an individual’s perception of pain.
Meditation: This technique allows a person to focus on something simple, such as breathing, to develop a restful state. This can help reduce stress that can make headache symptoms worse.
Massage: Getting a massage can reduce stress, relieve muscle tension, and promote relaxation. This can be helpful if the headache sufferer has tight muscles in the back of his or her neck and shoulders.
Herbs, vitamins, and minerals: There are some supplements, such as magnesium, feverfew, and butterbur, that seem to assist in preventing and relieving some of the symptoms associated with headaches.
Chiropractic treatment: Some headache sufferers find that spinal manipulation can effectively address their pain.
It is always advisable to discuss alternative treatments with your doctor first. You want to make sure that any new treatments you take don’t interfere with medication you’re already taking.
Living with a constant headache can be debilitating. For some people, it makes it difficult to work, socialize, and enjoy the simple things in life like reading, listening to music, or sitting outside on a beautiful, sunny day. If you have a constant headache, you should not suffer in silence — seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Related: Types of headaches and causes, symptoms, and prevention chart