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.
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:
Secondary headaches are related to another medical condition, such as:
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:
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.
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.
Common triggers of tension headaches or migraines include:
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:
Migraines are the second most common type of primary headaches. Symptoms of migraines include:
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
If you or your child has any of these headache symptoms, get medical care right away:
Contact your health care provider if you or your child has any of the following symptoms:
If you have headaches often or if they are very severe, reach out to your healthcare provider. You can usually start with your family physician, where the diagnosis process will begin. It’s important to diagnose headaches correctly so that specific therapy can be started to help you feel better. Your healthcare provider will complete a physical examination, discuss your medical history and talk to you about your headache symptoms. This conversation is part of a headache evaluation. During the headache evaluation, your provider will ask you about your headache history, including:
Your headache can be more accurately diagnosed by knowing:
Your doctor will also ask additional questions about performance at work, family background, and if there is any history of drug abuse.
Clinical description of headaches
Describe how you feel when you have the headache and what happens when you get the headache, such as:
History of headache treatments
You should provide your physician with a history of prior headache treatments. Tell your doctor what medications you have taken in the past and what medications are you currently taking. Don't hesitate to list them, bring in the medication bottles or ask your pharmacist for a printout.If any studies or tests were previously performed, bring them with you. This may save time and repetition of tests.
Physical and neurological examinations for headaches
After completing the medical history part of the evaluation, your physician will perform physical and neurological examinations. The physician will look for signs and symptoms of an illness that may be causing the headache. These signs and symptoms can include:
Neurological tests focus on ruling out diseases that might also cause headaches, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and other cerebrovascular diseases. A disorder of the central nervous system might be suspected in the development of serious headaches. These include:
After evaluating the results of your headache history, physical examination and neurological examination, your physician should be able to determine what type of headache you have, whether or not a serious problem is present and whether additional tests are needed.
If possible, try to write down how you feel when you are experiencing a headache. Keeping a journal of your headaches and how they make you feel can be helpful when you are talking to your healthcare provider.
The information you give your healthcare provider about your headaches is the most important part of the diagnosis process. By giving your provider as much information as possible about your headaches, you’re more likely to get an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan that will help you feel better.
Although scans and other imagining tests can be important when ruling out other diseases, they do not help in diagnosing migraines, cluster or tension-type headaches. However, if your healthcare provider thinks that your headaches are being caused by another medical condition, there are several imaging tests that may be done. A CT scan or MRI can be used if your provider thinks your headaches are connected to an issue with your central nervous system. Both of these tests produce cross-sectional images of the brain that can show any abnormal areas or problems. X-rays of your skull are generally not done. An EEG (electroencephalogram) may not be needed unless you’ve ever passed out during a headache.
One of the most crucial aspect of treating headaches is figuring out your triggers. Learning what those are — typically by keeping a headache log — can reduce the number of headaches you have.
Once you know your triggers, your healthcare provider can tailor treatment to you. For example, you may get headaches when you’re tense or worried. Counseling and stress management techniques can help you handle this trigger better. By lowering your stress level, you can avoid stress-induced headaches.
Not every headache requires medication. A range of treatments is available. Depending on your headache type, frequency and cause, treatment options include:
Stress management teaches you ways to cope with stressful situations. Relaxation techniques are helpful in managing stress. You use deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mental images and music to ease your tension.
Biofeedback teaches you to recognize when tension is building in your body. You learn how your body responds to stressful situations and ways to settle it down. During biofeedback, sensors are connected to your body. They monitor your involuntary physical responses to headaches, which include increases in:
Occasional tension headaches usually respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers. But be aware that using these medications too often can lead to a long-term daily headache.
For frequent or severe headaches, your provider may recommend prescription headache medications. Triptans and other types of drugs can stop a migraine attack. You take them at the first signs of an oncoming headache.
Drugs for high blood pressure, seizures and depression can sometimes prevent migraines. Your healthcare provider may recommend trying one of these medications to reduce headache frequency.
The key to preventing headaches is figuring out what triggers them. Triggers are very specific to each person — what gives you a headache may not be a problem for others. Once you determine your triggers, you can avoid or minimize them.
For example, you may find that strong scents set you off. Avoiding perfumes and scented products can make a big difference in how many headaches you have. The same goes for other common triggers like troublesome foods, lack of sleep and poor posture.
Many people, however, are not able to avoid triggers or are unable to identify triggers. In that case, a more personalized multidisciplinary approach with a headache specialist is often necessary.
Treating health problems that cause headaches, such as high blood pressure, can eliminate head pain. Recently, there have been several new advancements in our understanding of what causes headaches. Although we are closer than ever before to a cure, at this time there is no cure for primary headaches. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing future episodes.
There are many different ways to address headaches. When you start a treatment program, keep track of your results. A headache log can help you measure progress.
If you don’t notice an improvement, talk to your doctor at the next follow-up exam. You may need to try something new.
Most of the time headaches, although painful, don’t pose a serious threat. However, headaches can sometimes be a symptom of a life-threatening condition. Signs you should seek immediate medical care include:
You can treat the occasional, mild headache at home with over-the-counter pain relievers. Other self-care treatments for headaches include:
The good news for headache sufferers is that you can choose from many kinds of treatment. If your first treatment plan doesn’t work, don’t give up. Your healthcare provider can recommend other treatments or strategies to find the right fix for you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/03/2020.