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Headaches Can Be a Pain In The Neck

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer

'It's just a little headache. I'll be fine.' Have you ever said this as you did a preflight of the airplane before a flight? If you do not have a history of headaches, that's probably true, but medical experts say some headaches can seriously impair your ability.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in its medical publications, warns that some headaches can materially affect decision-making. Sometimes they reduce the ability to properly read instruments; sometimes a headache can produce scotoma (a dimming of vision or blind spot), making it difficult to determine height above the ground resulting in landing problems; sometimes double vision can be present. These major problems usually relate to migraine or cluster headaches. However, even a mild headache can detract a pilot's attention from flight duties.

More than 150 diagnostic headache categories have been established, ranging from simple aches to migraines or clusters. Tension headaches are the most common among adults and adolescents. They cause moderate pain and come and go. Migraines produce a more severe pain and can last from several hours to several days. In its report on headaches, the Cleveland Clinic says the exact causes of migraines are unknown but are related to blood vessel contractions. They can be brought on by many factors. Some can be from inherited abnormalities.

Tension headaches are the most common and come and go. They usually can be eased or relieved by over-the-counter medications. These can be brought on by emotional stress associated with family, work, school, or friends; skipping meals, unusual sleep patterns; alcohol, or even such mundane things as poor posture.

There are two types of tension-type headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation: episodic and chronic. Symptoms for both types are similar. They may include muscles between the head and neck contracting; a tightening sensation around the neck or head, or pain primarily in the forehead, temples, or back of the head or neck. For this type of headache, over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or something similar can be effective. If the symptoms persist, one should seek a proper professional diagnosis.

Migraines, the World Health Organization says, can last from two hours to three days. About a fourth of the persons who have migraines experience more than one a week; others may have them no more than one a year.

The most painful and debilitating are cluster headaches, which are the least common of all, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The pain is frequently so severe that the patient cannot sit or stand still but will pace during the attack. They may occur one to three times a day during the cluster period. These periods may last for a couple of weeks to several months and then the headaches will go into remission, only to be repeated at a later date.

The Flight Safety Foundation reports that the Federal Aviation Administration's Guide For Medical Examiners says that pain from migraines can be 'acutely incapacitating' and can preclude issuances of a medical certificate.

There are signs that should cause a person to consult a medical professional. The Flight Safety Foundations lists among these: headaches occurring three or more times a week; pain-relief medication taken daily or longer than recommended; if pain worsens or changes character; if they occur after strenuous physical activity, coughing, sexual activity, head injury; or changes such as slurred speech, numbness, dizziness, or other unusual changes.

Any attempt to treat yourself with over-the-counter medications can bring on worse headaches if these medications are not taken correctly. Over use or not properly following a doctor's instructions can bring on a 'rebound' headache. This leads to a desire to take even more medication, creating a cycle producing more pain.

According to the National Headache Foundation more than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches. About 28 million Americans suffer from migraines.

Before pre-flighting the airplane it's smart to preflight yourself.

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA nor Charles Spence assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.

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