Headaches are one of the most common types of pain we experience. They’re a frequently cited reason for missed work or school days, as they impact our ability to effectively function in our daily routines. The International Headache Society has identified over 150 different types of headaches. Common types include migraine, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and headaches associated with specific activities, such as exercise.
Headaches are divided into primary and secondary types. Primary headaches are those which occur independently of underlying medical issues or causes and for which headache is the dominant symptom. According to research conducted by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the most common types of primary headaches include migraine, tension headaches, and cluster headaches.
Secondary headaches are those which occur as a symptom of another underlying health issue or disorder. Causes of secondary headaches may include fever, head injury or trauma, hypertension, stroke, certain nerve disorders, infections, and psychiatric issues. These types of headaches can also be brought on by emotional upheaval, stress, and certain medication reactions.
Percent of adults who had a headache in the last 12 months.
Leading cause of years lost to disability
Percent of people worldwide who experienced headache 15 or more days per month
When is a headache more than just a headache? In some cases, a headache can be a symptom of an underlying issue or condition. It’s important to be aware of the risk factors that can accompany headaches and when to reach out to a qualified healthcare professional.
You should speak to a doctor if you or a loved one has a headache that’s accompanied by:
You should discuss frequent or recurring headaches with your doctor, especially if you have a history of health conditions like stroke or high blood pressure. You should also seek medical
Headache symptoms can vary widely depending on the type and the individual, with pain ranging from mild to severe.
Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. They typically involve mild to moderate levels of pain, usually felt on both sides of the head (rather than being localized in one place). Tension headache symptoms often worsen during activities like walking, exercising, bending over, or climbing stairs. They are typically caused and accompanied by muscle tightness in the shoulders, neck, back, and jaw.
Cluster headaches are another type of primary headache, though symptoms are typically more severe than with tension headaches. The term “cluster” refers to the frequency of occurrence, with headaches tending to occur multiple times per day within a given period. Cluster headaches typically last anywhere from a few weeks to three months. They often involve intense, throbbing pain around and behind the eyes and can be accompanied by a stabbing or burning sensation. Cluster headaches are common during spring and fall.
Migraine is a brain disease that causes people to have persistent headaches often accompanied by heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. Migraine attacks typically involve moderate to severe pain and tend to last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. People who suffer from migraine often report experiencing a throbbing, pounding sensation. Unlike tension or cluster headaches, migraine headaches can also cause nausea, abdominal pain, and even vomiting.
Sinus headaches often involve pain in the cheekbones, forehead, and bridge of the nose. This common type of secondary headache results from sinus inflammation or infection. Pain may be accompanied by other symptoms, including facial swelling, stuffy nose, fever, or a feeling of fullness in the ears.
The majority of headaches are not caused by serious underlying issues. A typical headache evaluation with your primary care physician will include a physical examination, review of your medical history, review of your symptoms and the frequency and severity of any persistent headaches.
To aid in this process, it’s helpful to arrive prepared to answer questions and provide detailed information related to:
In addition to this information, your doctor may also ask about factors known to impact headaches, including:
In some cases, more in-depth assessments are warranted to determine the cause of headaches. Your physician may wish to perform or order neurologic tests, including brain imaging tests such as a CT scan or an MRI. If necessary, your primary care physician may refer you to specialists if further assessment is warranted.
There are a range of treatment options available to help manage headache pain. Your specific treatment plan will depend on what type of headaches you experience, what causes them, and how frequently you experience symptoms. Your doctor may recommend preventative treatments if your headaches occur three or more times per month. Preventative treatments aim to address and reduce the underlying causes and triggers of headache attacks to reduce both their frequency and severity.
In some cases, relaxation and stress management techniques or counseling services may help assist you in recognizing and managing headache triggers. If your doctor suspects that certain foods or beverages may be causing your headache attacks, they may ask you to eliminate these foods from your diet. There are a number of medications that provide headache relief, ranging from over-the-counter to prescription options.
The goal of headache trials and research is to find and test new treatments for headaches of all kinds. There are numerous clinical trials currently planned or underway to assess therapies for tension headaches, cluster headaches, and non-specified headaches. Discoveries that lead to new insights or better treatments for one type of headache will help us better understand and treat other related conditions.
The American Brain Foundation is proud to support current headache research efforts through the Goadsby Headache Research Fund. Established in honor of our 2021 Scientific Breakthrough Award recipient Peter Goadsby, MD, PhD, this fund supports innovative research projects that further our understanding of migraine and chronic headache conditions, as well as research addressing health disparities in migraine and headache care.
You can be part of this mission by donating to the fund and supporting its research efforts.
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