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What is a Headache?

Nearly everyone has a headache. In fact, headaches are the most common form of pain. The pain may come on suddenly and can be debilitating in some people. Though the pain is alarming, most causes of headaches do not have lasting health effects.

The pain from a headache is not actually coming from the brain. Most headaches involve the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels that cover your head and neck. When a headache occurs, the pain may be confined to one area, or it may encompass the entire head.

There are several types of headaches. Most people experience one or several of these different types in their lifetime. The most common types of headaches include:

  • Tension headaches. This is one of the most common types of headache. If you have a tension headache, you may feel a dull, aching sensation all over your head. A tension headache is often triggered by stress.
  • Migraines. Migraines can cause intense, throbbing pain from deep within your skull. It may be worse on one side of your head. You may be bothered by noise or lights, or see spots. The pain can last for several days and may cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Cluster headaches. These headaches generally come and go throughout the day. Sometimes cluster headaches can last for several days. You may notice a burning or piercing pain on one side of the face.

These 3 types of headaches are known as primary headaches. Primary headaches occur when the pain you are experiencing is the only symptom. In other words, no other condition is causing your headache. Secondary headaches are caused by another condition, such as an illness. Common secondary headaches include:

  • Allergy or sinus headaches
  • Hormone headaches
  • Caffeine headaches
  • Hypertension headaches


Headache symptoms depend on the type of headache you have.

Symptoms of a tension headache can include:

  • Sharp pain in your head
  • Dull or achy pain in your head
  • Tenderness on your forehead, neck, and shoulder muscles
  • Pressure or tightness across your forehead

Symptoms of a migraine headache can include:

  • Intense, throbbing pain from deep within your skull. It may be worse on one side of your head.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Vision disturbances

Symptoms of a cluster headache can include:

  • Repeated, intense headaches lasting from 15 minutes to a few hours
  • Pain is in and around one eye

Cluster headaches are often confused with migraine or tensions headaches.

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, headaches will go away within 24-48 hours. Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a headache that lasts more than a couple of days
  • You get headaches often and don’t know the cause
  • Your headaches are very intense and come on suddenly
  • You have ongoing headaches that began after a head injury or trauma
  • Your headaches are getting in the way of your normal daily activities

Call your healthcare provider right away if your headache is accompanied by the following symptoms:

    Slurred speech
  • Loss of balance
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Trouble moving your arms or legs
  • Head injury

This could be a sign of a serious medical problem that needs treatment right away.


Headaches may strike for no reason. Or, headaches may be caused by a number of factors including:

  • Stress
  • Concussion
  • Medicine
  • Concussion
  • Brain tumor
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning (this is a life-threatening emergency)
  • Sinus infection
  • Allergies
  • The flu
  • Stroke
  • Eating something very cold (brain freeze)
  • Caffeine

Diagnosis and Tests

In most cases, headaches will get better on their own. If you have headaches often, or a headache that occurs suddenly, your healthcare provider may recommend tests to find the cause. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • X-rays
  • Brain scans, such as a CT and MRI


Treatment will depend on the cause of the headaches and your overall health. In most cases, you can treat headaches with over-the-counter pain relievers. Other treatment may include:

  • Prescription medicines for pain relief
  • Resting in a quiet, dark room
  • Applying heat or cold packs to your head and neck
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture


You may not be able to prevent every headache from happening. However, there are a few things you can do to help avoid at least a few.

  • Manage stress
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Limit or avoid caffeine
  • Avoid staring at screens (computers, smartphones) for long periods
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep a list of when you get headaches. Write down what you think may be causing them, and see if you can avoid these things in the future.

If you suffer from chronic migraines, talk to your healthcare provider about medicines that may help prevent migraines in the future.

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