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Diseases & Conditions

Diagnosing and Treating Headaches

What are the most common types of headaches?

The most common types of primary headaches are:

  • Tension-type
  • Migraine
  • Cluster

These three syndromes account for more than 90% of the headaches for which people see their doctors. The vast majority of 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 exclude 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 provide their doctor with a good description of their symptoms in order that the correct diagnosis is made. 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
  • The frequency of headache attacks and how long they last
  • If physical activity aggravates the pain
  • A list of medications being taken, including any over the counter products. Taking pain medications too frequently can lead to intermittent headaches becoming chronic and daily.

What is the doctor's role?

The doctor's role is to listen and help the patient provide 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 causes that may need treatment.

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


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 9/29/2012...#4105