Headaches have been a part of life for as long as I can remember. These usually start as a throbbing vein just above the left temple — a Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) headache — before expanding to other parts of the head and becoming a migraine. In a typical week I'll have four or five clusters with one or two full migraines. Only when I reach the point of a debilitating migraine will I take some ibuprofen to reduce the pain. The doctors I've seen over the years have found nothing wrong. My glasses are fine, as are the muscles around the head and neck. The headaches will form regardless of whether I'm using a computer or not, and work does not seem to trigger a higher rate of problems1. This is just a fact of life for me.

One of the first serious TMJ headaches that I remember was in my third year of high school. I came home on a Friday with a throbbing skull. My parents told me it was because I wasn't wearing my glasses2 and insisted I put them on. I went upstairs to my room, climbed into bed, and woke up on Sunday3. This wasn't the first time that I'd lost an entire day while in a comatose state4, but it was enough to trigger me to pay attention to how these headaches formed, evolved, and dissipated.

It wasn't long before the three most common types were identified.

The TMJ Headache

This is the most common for me, where a throbbing or piercing pain starts around the temple and works its way inwards, sometimes feeling as though it's penetrating the ear canal and causing all sorts of confusion and sensitivity to sound. These headaches are likely one of the primary reasons I strongly dislike incoherent noise. Ibuprofen can relieve the pain within 15 minutes or so of taking the pills, while acetaminophen can require as much as 30 minutes before kicking in. Suffice it to say, there is always a supply of ibuprofen in this house.

The Neck Headache

This is one that a lot of people have become familiar with over the years thanks to cell phone usage. When the neck is bent for extended periods of time, it puts a lot of strain on the muscles in our shoulders, neck, and head. This can result in blood circulation issues or muscle strain, which can then evolve into an unpleasant headache. People who use their phones in low-light environments are hit twice as hard because, in addition to a neck headache, they often get to deal with a cluster headache around the eyes. I would often have neck headaches in my youth after playing with the GameBoy for hours on end, and after university when I'd use my Palm handhelds for hours and hours and hours. Over the last couple of years I've moved away from looking down at a device and instead have neck headaches as a result of poor sleeping posture. These are not at all fun to deal with and generally result in loud snoring and a headache the size of an elephant after waking.

The Migraine

Everyone's least-favourite headache. These have become a lot more common since the boy joined the family, as he's yet to learn the difference between an outside voice and an inside voice, and generally involve the sort of pain that makes a person want to sit in a quiet and dark closet for the rest of the day. A sensitivity to sound and light is very common, as is a loss of appetite and extreme dizziness. Being a parent means that I generally can't disappear from the world for a couple of hours but, when things become really dire, I reach for the noise-isolating headphones and drown out the world with a 9-hour audio track of falling rain. The boy can continue to scream his A-B-Cs, and I can sit at a safe distance and wait for the medicine to kick in.

  1. During holidays and vacations I'm just as likely to have headaches as when I'm sitting in front of a computer for hours on end for the day job.

  2. The same pair that I think I accidentally threw away during a locker clean-out.

  3. Given that I was the family cook, and the person who did a lot of cleaning, this didn't sit well with my sisters who had to pick up the slack while I was out of commission. I never did find out why I wasn't brought to a hospital for being completely unresponsive for 36 hours.

  4. The first time was the result of sunstroke after playing about 12 hours of baseball in the sun without adequate hydration.