What Is Sinus Headache?
Sinus headache is caused by bacterial and fungal infection in the sinuses, which are the air-filled passages around the nose, cheeks and eyes. The condition can be confusing, even in the medical community, since sinus infection can lead to migraine and vice versa.
Differences between the two conditions include the areas where pain is felt. For instance, a sinus headache can be present on both sides of the head, whereas migraine generally locates on one side, although it can be both. Sinus headache can involve the top of the back of the head (in the crown region), although it does not typically extend into the neck.
Sinus Headache Symptoms
There are many diverse symptoms, often starting during or just after a bad cold. Patients can expect any of the following:
- Tenderness around the face with swollen, red areas.
- Pain that is worse in the morning. This is caused by mucus collecting and draining overnight. As the day goes on, the pain lessens.
- Pressure sensations behind the eyes or in other locations of the face. These feelings of pressure can lead to a sinus tension headache.
- Congestion and a runny nose.
- Pain that worsens with movement, such as coughing or bending over.
- Pain that worsens with sudden temperature changes, such as going out into the cold after being warm indoors.
- Throbbing pain.
- Other sinus headache symptoms related to sinusitis may include:
- Pharyngitis (postnasal drip accompanied by a sore throat).
- Generally feeling unwell and fatigued.
- Discolored nasal discharge.
- Mild to moderate feverishness.
- Pain in the upper jaw or teeth.
- Sufferers are often more affected during the winter, when the climate is cold and damp.
Causes of Sinus Headache
When the sinuses become inflamed by respiratory infection, blockages can occur that prevent natural drainage. Blockages may happen due to colds or flu, or may be caused by rhinitis from allergies that affect the airways, such as hay fever.
The accumulation of mucus secretions in blocked sinuses creates a fertile breeding ground for fungus and bacteria and infection rapidly develops. Often accompanied by coughs and sore throats or fevers, the resulting pressures caused by blocked, infected sinuses can lead to sinus headaches.
Those most at risk often have a history of allergies that result in asthma or hay fever. In addition, minor abnormalities such as nasal bone spurs, deviated septum or nasal polyps may cause more frequent headache episodes.
Anything that prevents the normal drainage of mucus, preventing air from circulating around the nasal passages, is potentially a trigger for sinusitis and developing sinus headache.
Sinus Headache Treatment
Correct diagnosis is the first step toward effective sinus headache relief. Initial physical exams from a physician include applying pressure on the face to check for tenderness, as well as a visual exam for inflammation and/or congestion.
When chronic sinusitis is suspected, imaging tests such as X-ray, CT or MRI scans can accurately pinpoint the cause.
Once diagnosis is confirmed, various treatments are available:
Pharmacological Therapies – Depending on the causes, physicians may prescribe sinus headache medicine such as antibiotics or corticosteroids. When sinus headaches are caused by allergies, allergy medication such as antihistamines may be more effective since the allergy is the underlying cause. In addition, medications similar to those prescribed to migraine sufferers may be offered, including triptans, ergots or anti-nausea medications. Nasal decongestants, including steroid-based nasal sprays, can also provide symptomatic relief.
Alternative Therapies – Acupuncture is beneficial in some cases, although studies reveal conflicting results. Other therapies include lifestyle changes such as using a humidifier or inhaling steam. Dietary or nutritional supplements, such as consuming probiotics to increase “friendly” bacteria, can also be effective. Patients with weakened immune systems should consult their care provider before introducing dietary changes.
Relaxation Techniques – Meditation, yoga or hypnotherapy may be useful in cases of sinus tension headache. Other relaxation techniques include using guided imagery or biofeedback to learn how to control muscle tension.
Surgical Interventions – Endoscopic sinus surgery or balloon rhinoplasty may prove effective when bone spurs, deviated septum, or polyps are the cause of sinus headache.