What Is a Vascular Headache & Can You Treat It?

Vascular headache is an outdated term used to refer to a migraine headache. It was previously used to describe all headaches that occurred due to a change in the size of blood vessels in the head and neck, causing pain and discomfort in individuals. Some doctors may still use this term when talking about a migraine even though it is no longer used by the International Headache Society.

So, what is a vascular headache exactly? Keep reading to find out more about what it is, its symptoms, and effective treatment options to find relief.

What Is a Vascular Headache?

A vascular headache is caused by blood vessels in the brain when they swell, constrict, or go through other changes. Symptoms include intense throbbing or severe pulsing, which usually happens on one side of the brain. When having a vascular headache, you may also find yourself sensitive to light and sound, experience nausea, and, sometimes, even visual impairment.

The exact cause of vascular headaches isn’t known. However, doctors have surmised that abnormal brain activity, genetic factors, and triggers like stress, certain foods, and hormonal changes can bring them about.

Are There Different Types of Vascular Headaches?

The most common type of vascular headache is a migraine. Migraines are characterized by severe pain that is a throbbing or pounding sensation and can accompanied by nausea, vomiting, anxiety, loss of appetite, and light and sound sensitivity. Movement tends to make them worse. Some people experience their migraines in phases:

  • Prodrome phase: this pre-migraine phase can develop hours or even days before the onset of migraine and is characterized by symptoms of discomfort in the neck, irritability, and feeling down.
  • Migraine aura: this phase occurs right before the migraine, lingers for about an hour, and is characterized by numbness or a tingling sensation and vision disturbances such as flashes of light. 
  • Postdrome phase: this is the post-migraine phase and lasts for 1–2 days. People report feeling foggy and fatigued during this phase.

Cluster headaches are less common than migraines, but the pain is reportedly more severe. The term cluster refers to their tendency to occur in clusters on and off throughout the day. The pain is usually felt behind one or both eyes and has been described as searing, burning, or stabbing. Symptoms include nasal congestion, facial sweating, watery eyes, eyelid swelling and drooping.

Cluster headaches can be triggered by seasonal changes, alcohol, and smoking, making them more likely to occur in the spring and fall. 

Illness-related or secondary headaches are another common category of headaches brought on by underlying conditions like the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Once the illness has passed, the headaches will subside as well.

How Are Vascular Headaches Diagnosed?

Diagnosis typically involves a physician taking a detailed medical history and a physical exam. Your doctor will also ask about your symptoms, headache patterns, and potential triggers. For this reason, it’s good to take notes to keep track of how often your headaches occur and what seems to bring them on.

If your doctor needs more information to determine causation, they may order additional testing like an MRI, CT scan, or blood tests to rule out other contributing factors and underlying conditions.

What Are the Treatment Options for Vascular Headaches?

Pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be effective for mild vascular headaches. For more severe headaches, like migraines, your doctor may prescribe triptans, ergotamines, or preventive medications like beta blockers and antidepressants.

In addition to medication, regular exercise, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep can help manage your symptoms.

Moreover, alternative therapies for those who prefer not to take medication include techniques like acupuncture, biofeedback, aromatherapy, and relaxation therapy.

When Should You See a Doctor?

You should see your doctor if you’re experiencing sudden and severe headaches, headaches accompanied by neurological symptoms like vision loss or difficulty speaking, or a headache that won’t go away. Start with primary care and, if more help is needed, find specialty care at RMC Neurology.

Find Relief from Vascular Headaches with RMC

Vascular headaches are painful and disruptive, but with the right understanding and treatment, you can manage them effectively. If you’re struggling with frequent cluster headaches or migraines, contact us at RMC. Our caring team of physicians can help you figure out what’s causing your headaches and develop a treatment plan to reduce the painful disruptions they cause in your life.