What are the most common types of headaches?

The most common types of primary headaches are tension-type, migraine, and cluster.

These three syndromes make up more than 90% of the headaches for which people see their doctors. Most headaches are not caused by any serious disease.

How are headaches diagnosed?

It is important to diagnose headaches correctly so that specific therapy can be started. Although scans and other tests are important to rule out disease, they do not help in diagnosing migraine, cluster, or tension-type headaches.

The information the patient gives the doctor about his or her headaches (i.e., specific details in the history of the headaches) is the most important factor in making the proper diagnosis. Headache sufferers must give their doctor a good description of their symptoms so that the doctor can make the correct diagnosis. The correct diagnosis is essential for the headache to be treated successfully.

It is important for patients to tell their doctor:

  • The type of pain they feel
  • The location of the pain in their head
  • If there are any accompanying symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or noise
  • How often they have a headache and how long the headache lasts
  • If physical activity makes the pain worse
  • What medications they are taking, including any over-the-counter products. Taking pain medications too frequently can lead to infrequent headaches becoming daily and chronic (long-term) headaches.

What is the doctor's role in diagnosing and treating headaches?

The doctor's role is to listen to the patient and get a complete history of the headaches and any associated symptoms. The doctor will also thoroughly examine the patient and order the necessary tests to evaluate and diagnose any possible organic (biological) causes that may need treatment.

Treatment (with or without medications) should be tailored to each patient, depending on the type of headache and any other possible medical problems.