Abstract: "Anatomy of a Headache."

Kiester, Edwin, Jr. "Anatomy of a Headache." Funk & Wagnalls Science Yearbook: 1989. p.232-239. (from Smithsonian. December 1987.)

The headache, like the common cold, is one of the most common, and least understood ailments. The cause of headaches, and more specifically, migraine headaches has been debated for years, with no clear cut answers. However, some modern research is pointing back towards long forgotten work of the 1950s.

One of the most effective was to describe a disease is to include a cartoon. By using exaggeration and picturization, a cartoon can much more accurately display the feelings of a disease sufferer. In this article some great cartoons were included. One cartoon depicted the sufferer of a migraine. Another pointed out the even greater problems faced by the sufferer, the many swindlers trying to peddle who-knows-what as a pseudo-headache cure tonic. Finally, a cartoon displayed the auras that are often seen by sufferers of migraines. However, there are some things that even the most excellent cartoons cannot display, such as research equipment and techniques used. To compensate for this, the article included an ample supply of 'real' pictures.

The history of the common headache travels back into time. One of the first sufferers was probably Adam, but unfortunately, we are yet to undercover his medical records, so instead the great Greek guru, Aristotle, is acknowledge as one of the first to publicly inscribe notes describing the headache. Many well known people, ranging from U. S. Grant to Leo Tolstoi have suffered from migraines. Grant's case was interesting because of the conditions surrounding it. He suffered greatly as he and Robert E. Lee met in the final engagement, but, when Lee announced his intentions to surrender, his headache was 'miraculously' cured. This lead many headache-ologists to believe that headaches were mainly psychosomatic, and brought by excessive brain activity. Another later conducted study confirmed this. In the study, it was found that the large majority of severe head-ache sufferers were affluent overachievers. Unfortunately this study really bombed when it was discovered that an equal proportion of people in general, and headache sufferers were classified as overachievers. As it turns out, affluent people were most likely to seek medical aide; therefore, they were noticed most in the study.

The etymology of the word migraine has no real anatomical implications, but it's interesting. Originally, in the second century A.D., the Greek physician Galen coined a word to describe the headache. The word, hemikrania, literally means 'half a skull'. It was so named because the disease often attacks only half a skull. The Old English guys must not have had the greatest Greek instructors, for by the time it got to them, it became 'megrim'. Later it advanced into the form we not it as today, 'migraine'.

Migraine headaches follow no-set pattern. Some people view strange auras before their headache. Others become nauseated and weak during the occurrence of the headache. Some have headaches sporadically, only on rare occasions. Others suffer from headaches on near iron-clad schedule. Some sufferers feel full head pain, while others feel pain in only one side of their head. Because of the many different strains of headache suffering, it has been difficult for researchers to pinpoint the actual cause of headaches.

In years past the common wisdom held that headaches were caused by the thumping of arteries against nerves in the brain. Today, however, that is viewed as an effect of the headache, and not the cause. Instead, most medical people belong to the school that believes that severe headaches are caused by the upsetting of the brains normal chemistry. These are probably distant cousins to the "nerve storms" of epilepsy. It is thought that changes in the level of the neurotransmitter, serotonin enhance the brains ability to sense pain. Thus the brain begins to feel the throbbing pain known as a headache.

The treatments for headaches have advanced greatly throughout the years. In the middle ages monks would engage in the act of firmly pressing their head against a 'great ones' grave. Today, people often take a couple aspirin, and hops it gets better soon. For the more serious chronic sufferers, a greater realm of remedies exists. One remedy is the drug, ergotamine. Similar in composition to the a substance which caused the ailment St. Anthony's Fire, it constricts blood flow to the lower extremity. This halts the headache pain in about half the causes. Other drugs have been developed that don't have as many side effects (would you trust a drug that killed one in five partakers in the middle ages), and are equally effective at halting the pain. Another type of drug uses beta blockers or calcium blockers similar to those used in cardiac ailment treatment. Finally, in the worst case scenario, Methysergide, a relative of LSD is used. Obviously, by looking at its kin it has some serious side effects.

Today's research is only scratching the surface of headache technology. Some causes of minor headaches have not even been considered yet. Why do people suddenly get headaches when typing journal reports late at night? That is another one of those unanswerable questions that will require years of research and late night activity before a solution is found. However, for now, this article "is the uptmost of effectiveness. It works." [sic] Unfortunately, with the ever changing world of medicine, that may not be true ten years from now.