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What is a headache?

A headache is pain or discomfort in the head or face area. Headaches vary greatly in terms of pain location, pain intensity, and how frequently they occur. This results in several categories of headaches. While the actual brain tissue doesn’t have pain-sensitive nerve fibers and doesn’t feel pain, other parts of the head can be responsible for a headache including:

  • A network of nerves that extends over the scalp
  • Certain nerves in the face, mouth, and throat
  • Muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders
  • Blood vessels found along the surface and at the base of the brain (these contain delicate nerve fibers)

Different types of headaches include:


This type of headache is distinguished by the fact that symptoms other than pain occur as part of the headache. Nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness, sensitivity to light (photophobia), and other visual symptoms typically occur with migraine. Migraines are also unique in that they have distinct phases. Not all people have each phase, however. The phases of a migraine headache may include:

  • Premonition phase. A change in mood or behavior that may occur hours or days before the headache.
  • Aura phase. A group of visual, sensory, or motor symptoms that immediately precede the headache. Examples include vision changes, hallucinations, numbness, changes in speech, and muscle weakness.
  • Headache phase. Period during the actual headache with throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Sensitivity to light and motion are common, as are depression, fatigue, and anxiety.
  • Headache resolution phase. Pain lessens during this phase, but may be replaced with fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Some individuals feel refreshed after an attack, while others do not.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Stress and muscle tension are often factors in tension-type headaches. While symptoms may differ, the following are common symptoms of a tension-type headache:

  • Slow onset of the headache
  • Head usually hurts on both sides
  • Pain is dull or feels like a band or vice around the head
  • Pain may involve the back (posterior) part of the head or neck
  • Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe
  • Tension type headaches typically do not cause nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light (photophobia).

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches usually occur in a series that may last weeks or months, and the headache series may return every year or two.


While people often experience symptoms differently, the following are the most common symptoms of a cluster headache:

  • Severe pain on one side of the head, usually behind one eye
  • The eye that is affected may be red and watery with a droopy lid and small pupil
  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Swelling of the forehead

What causes a headache?

Headaches are classified as primary or secondary.

  • A primary headache means the headache itself is the main medical problem, although other factors, such as muscle tension or exposure to certain foods, may be identified. Other contributing factors include medications, dehydration, or hormone changes.
  • A secondary headache is related to an underlying medical condition. An example of this would be a headache due to neck injury, eye problems, jaw, teeth or sinus infection.

What are the symptoms of a headache?

Headache symptoms depend on the type of headache. The frequency of headaches and the intensity of the symptoms may vary as well. Typical headache symptoms include:

  • Slow onset of the headache
  • Head usually hurts on both sides
  • Pain is dull or feels like a band or vice around the head
  • Pain may involve the back (posterior) part of the head or neck
  • Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe

Tension type headaches typically do not cause nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light (photophobia).

The symptoms of a headache may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is a headache diagnosed?

The full extent of the problem may not be understood immediately, but may be revealed with a comprehensive medical evaluation and diagnostic testing. The diagnosis of a headache is made with a careful history, physical examination and diagnostic tests.

Questions commonly asked during the exam may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • When do headaches occur?
  • What is the location of the headache?
  • What do the headaches feel like?
  • How long do the headaches last?
  • Have there been changes in behavior or personality?
  • Do changes in position or sitting up cause the headache?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping?
  • Do you have a history of stress?
  • Is there a history of head injury?

If the history is consistent with migraine or tension-type headaches and the neurological exam is normal, no further diagnostic testing may be necessary. However, if it is not a primary type headache, then other tests may be needed to determine the cause.

Tests used to determine the cause of a headache may include:

  • Blood tests. Various blood chemistry and other lab tests may be run to check for underlying conditions.
  • Sinus x-rays. A diagnostic imaging procedure to evaluate for congestion or other problems that may be corrected.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.


How are headaches treated?

Specific treatment for headaches will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Type of headaches
  • Severity and frequency of the headaches
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Your opinion or preference

The ultimate goal of treatment is to stop headaches from occurring. Adequate headache management depends on the accurate identification of the type of headache and may include:

  • Avoiding known triggers, such as certain foods and beverages, lack of sleep, and fasting
  • Changing eating habits
  • Exercise
  • Resting in a quiet, dark environment
  • Medications, as recommended by your health care provider
  • Stress management

Migraine headaches may require specific medication management including:

  • Abortive medications. Medications, prescribed by your health care provider, that act on specific receptors in nerves and blood vessels in the head to stop a headache in progress.
  • Rescue medications. Medications purchased over-the-counter, such as analgesics (pain relievers), to stop the headache.
  • Preventive medications. Medications, prescribed by your health care provider, that are taken daily to reduce the onset of severe migraine headaches.

Some headaches may require immediate medical attention including hospitalization for observation, diagnostic testing, or even surgery. Treatment is individualized depending on the underlying condition causing the headache. Full recovery depends on the type of headache and other medical problems that may be present.

Can headaches be prevented?

When headache triggers are known, avoiding the triggers can prevent a headache. Reducing stress can minimize or prevent headaches caused by stress. Migraine headaches may be prevented by taking a daily preventive medication.

When should I call my health care provider?

Most headaches can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers. However, you should call your health care provider right away if a severe headache is accompanied by:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Convulsion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Muscular weakness
  • Double vision
  • Change in level of consciousness.

Symptoms that may suggest a more serious headache include any of the following:

  • Worst headache ever, or new type of headache
  • Recurring headaches in children
  • Headaches that start early in the morning
  • Headache that follows a head injury
  • Pain that is worsened by strain, such as a cough or a sneeze
  • Vomiting without nausea
  • Sudden onset of pain and the "worst headache" ever
  • Headache that is becoming more severe or continuous
  • Personality changes
  • Seizures

Key points

  • A headache is pain or discomfort in the head or face area.
  • Types of headaches include migraine, tension, and cluster.
  • Headaches can be primary or secondary. If it is secondary, it is caused by another condition.
  • Avoiding headache triggers is the best prevention.
  • Mild to moderate headaches can be managed with over-the-counter medications but notify your health care provider if your headache is severe and accompanied by other symptoms.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.