Headaches! We have all had them. There are many causes of headaches but this article relates to that arising from conditions that affect the nose and sinuses. Our nose is very sensitive. It has to be as it forms one of our earliest sense organ for finding food as well as arousing us to the presence of danger from predators or our changing environment. Many of us know the nose as an organ of smell (and therefore flavor) and this sensation comes from the olfactory nerve. The nose however has another nerve supply that provides us with the sensation of heat, cold, dry, humid and of course, pain. This sensation arises from the fifth nerve of our brain called the trigeminal nerve.
You all know this nerve, which innervates your face, eyes, nose, sinuses and teeth. It burns and gives you a headache if you do somersaults underwater in the swimming pool or take too much wasabi on your sushi. Your face burns from the inside and your eyes water. This is when your trigeminal nerve is being hyper-stimulated.
This same nerve is responsible for the headaches one can get from sino-nasal disease. If someone has nasal allergy, and especially if the septum (the bone inside your nose that separates the right from the left nostril) is bent, the lining of the nose expands considerably. When the hypersensitive linings touches one another, they can cause a localized headache at the top of the head, the temples or the back of the head. This kind of headache, or nerve pain, is known as Sluder’s neuralgia or Sluder’s headache.
Our sinuses are air-filled cavities inside our skull. These cavities have very narrow openings into the nose. Again, due to:
- a nose allergy
- a bent septum blocking the sinus opening
- a narrowed sinus openings from recurrent infection
- or all of the above in the same person at the same time
The sinus openings become blocked. When this happens, a negative pressure is generated within the sinus and this can cause facial pains and headaches. If, on the other hand, there is a bacterial infection with pus formation, the pus will build up an intense pressure from within the sinus causing pain too. This change in pressure stimulates the nerve endings in the nose and sinuses, causing a sinus headache.
If only specific sinuses are affected like the frontal sinuses above the eyes, then a headache above and behind the eye may be felt. Sinus headaches are peculiar in that the pain changes in intensity with position, being usually more painful when the head is lowered i.e. tying the shoelaces or picking something from the floor. Also the bony surface of the face just outside the inflamed sinus is painful to applied pressure from outside the face.
Naturally, as you now understand that sino-nasal inflammation can cause headaches, you will realize that any infection of the inside of the nose can do this too. Even when we are stressed, the nose lining inside swells up and this can manifest as a headache. Equally cancers of the nose, sinuses and nasopharynx can cause headaches as they stimulate the trigeminal nerve or block the sinus openings. Cancers are thankfully much, much less common than allergies. However in any case, any persistent or recurring headaches is best investigated for its cause and the correct treatment offered.