How common are headaches in adults?
If your head is throbbing, you’re not alone. Headache is one of the most common pain conditions in the world. Up to 75% of adults worldwide have had a headache in the past year.
Headaches are a major cause of absenteeism from work and school. They also take a toll on social and family life. For some people, continually battling headaches can lead to feeling anxious and depressed.
What are the types of headaches?
There are more than 150 types of headache. They fall into two main categories: primary and secondary headaches.
Primary headaches are those that aren’t due to another medical condition. The category includes:
- Cluster headaches.
- New daily persistent headaches (NDPH).
- Tension headaches.
Secondary headaches are related to another medical condition, such as:
- Disease of blood vessels in the brain.
- Head injury.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Medication overuse.
- Sinus congestion.
Are headaches hereditary?
Headaches have a tendency to run in families, especially migraines. Children who have migraines usually have at least one parent who also suffers from them. In fact, kids whose parents have migraines are up to four times more likely to develop them too.
Headaches can also be triggered by environmental factors shared in a family’s household, such as:
- Eating certain foods or ingredients, like caffeine, alcohol, fermented foods, chocolate and cheese.
- Exposure to allergens.
- Secondhand smoke.
- Strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes.
What causes headaches?
Headache pain results from signals interacting among the brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves. During a headache, an unknown mechanism activates specific nerves that affect muscles and blood vessels. These nerves send pain signals to the brain.
What causes migraines?
Migraines aren’t fully understood. But researchers think migraines result when unstable nerve cells overreact to various factors (triggers). The nerve cells send out impulses to blood vessels and cause chemical changes in the brain. The result is disabling pain.
What triggers headaches and migraines?
Common triggers of tension headaches or migraines include:
- Alcohol use.
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
- Emotional stress related to family and friends, work or school.
- Excessive medication use.
- Eye, neck or back strain caused by poor posture.
- Weather changes.
What do headaches feel like?
Headache symptoms vary, depending on the type of headache you have.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Tension headache pain tends to be:
- Consistent without throbbing.
- Mild to moderate.
- On both sides of the head (bilateral).
- Responsive to over-the-counter treatment.
- Worse during routine activities (such as bending over or walking upstairs).
Migraines are the second most common type of primary headaches. Symptoms of migraines include:
- Moderate to severe pain.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Pounding or throbbing pain.
- Pain that lasts four hours to three days.
- Sensitivity to light, noise or odors.
- Stomach upset or abdominal pain.
Cluster headaches are the most severe type of primary headache. Cluster headaches come in a group or cluster, usually in the spring or fall. They occur one to eight times per day during a cluster period, which may last two weeks to three months. The headaches may disappear completely (go into remission) for months or years, only to recur later. The pain of a cluster headache is:
- Intense with a burning or stabbing sensation.
- Located behind one of your eyes or in the eye region, without changing sides.
- Throbbing or constant.
New daily persistent headaches
New daily persistent headaches (NDPH) come on suddenly and last for more than three months. They typically occur in people who weren’t having frequent headaches before. The pain of NDPH is:
- Constant and persistent without easing up.
- Located on both sides of the head.
- Not responsive to medications.
Sinus headaches are the result of a sinus infection, which causes congestion and inflammation in the sinuses (open passageways behind the cheeks and forehead). People, and even healthcare providers, often mistake migraines for sinus headaches. Symptoms of sinus headaches include:
- Bad taste in mouth.
- Deep, constant pain in your cheekbones and forehead.
- Facial swelling.
- Feeling of fullness in ears.
- Pain that gets worse with sudden head movement or straining.
- Mucus discharge (snot).
Medication overuse headaches
Medication overuse headaches (MOH) or rebound headaches affect up to 5% of people. They happen when you frequently take pain relievers for headaches. Eventually, this practice can actually increase your number of headaches. Signs of MOH include:
- Headaches becoming more frequent.
- More days with headaches than without.
- Pain that’s worse in the morning.
Headaches in children
Most kids have had a headache by the time they get to high school. For about 20% of them, tension headaches and migraines are a reoccurring problem. Similar to adults, triggers for headaches in children include:
- Certain foods that trigger headaches for the individual.
- Changes in sleep.
- Environmental factors.
What headache symptoms require immediate medical care?
If you or your child has any of these headache symptoms, get medical care right away:
- A sudden, new, severe headache
- A headache that is associated with neurological symptoms such as:
- Sudden loss of balance or falling
- Numbness or tingling
- Speech difficulties
- Mental confusion
- Personality changes/inappropriate behavior, or
- Vision changes (blurry vision, double vision, or blind spots)
- Headache with a fever, shortness of breath, stiff neck, or rash
- Headache pain that awakens you up at night
- Headaches with severe nausea and vomiting
- Headaches that occur after a head injury or accident
- Getting a new type of headache after age 55
Symptoms requiring an appointment with your health care provider or a headache specialist
Contact your health care provider if you or your child has any of the following symptoms:
- Three or more headaches per week.
- Headaches that keep getting worse and won't go away.
- Need to take a pain reliever every day or almost every day for your headaches.
- Need more than 2 to 3 doses of over-the-counter medications per week to relieve headache symptoms.
- Headaches that are triggered by exertion, coughing, bending, or strenuous activity.
- A history of headaches, but have noticed a recent change in your headache symptoms.