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What Is a Headache?

The science of headaches, explained.

Whether you’re under pressure, under the weather, or just hit by a sudden storm of pain — virtually all of us have experienced a headache at some point or another. The most common of all are what doctors call “tension-type” headaches, and they can feel like a giant rubber band squeezing your skull, creating soreness in your head, neck and shoulders.

For some, your headache might be a migraine when just one side of your head pulses and throbs, your vision gets a little wonky, or you just start to feel queasy. In this case, it’s best to quietly lie down, relax and call your doctor.

Even though scientists aren’t 100 percent sure what’s causing that splitting sensation in our heads, recent studies blame overactive or problematic nociceptors.

So what’s a nociceptor? Let’s zoom out for a second.

Our bodies have a central nervous system, which is made up of our brain and spinal cord. And all the nerves that extend from that make up our peripheral nervous system. Neurons connect everything like building blocks in our body, from our fingertips to the inner workings of our brain. And whether you’re touching a hot stove or getting a soothing massage, your sensory neurons tell your body to feel pleasure, pain and everything in between.

So remember our friend the nociceptor? Well, he’s responsible for telling your brain that something doesn’t feel good. But nociceptors don’t actually live in your brain. They live in the nerves and muscles all over your body. So during a headache, what’s hurting are the muscles in your head and neck, as well as the membrane around your brain and spinal cord called the meninges. Your brain actually doesn’t hurt — it’s everything around your brain.

And everything that stresses you out can trigger headaches, like long, restless nights or working too hard. Physical stresses, such as grinding your teeth or having poor posture, can also cause headaches in some.

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