Headache is pain in any region of the head. Headaches may occur on one or both sides of the head, be isolated to a certain location, radiate across the head from one point, or have a viselike quality.
A headache may appear as a sharp pain, a throbbing sensation or a dull ache. Headaches can develop gradually or suddenly, and may last from less than an hour to several days.
How Many Types of Headaches ?
Your headache symptoms can help your doctor determine its cause and the appropriate treatment. Most headaches aren’t the result of a serious illness, but some may result from a life-threatening condition requiring emergency care.
Headaches are generally classified by cause:
A primary headache is caused by overactivity of or problems with pain-sensitive structures in your head. A primary headache isn’t a symptom of an underlying disease.
Chemical activity in your brain, the nerves or blood vessels surrounding your skull, or the muscles of your head and neck (or some combination of these factors) can play a role in primary headaches. Some people may also carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches.
The most common primary headaches are:
- Cluster headache
- Migraine with aura
- Tension headache
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC), such as cluster headache and paroxysmal hemicrania
A few headache patterns also are generally considered types of primary headache, but are less common. These headaches have distinct features, such as an unusual duration or pain associated with a certain activity.
Although generally considered primary, each could be a symptom of an underlying disease. They include:
- Chronic daily headaches (for example, chronic migraine, chronic tension-type headache, or hemicranias continua)
- Cough headaches
- Exercise headaches
- Sex headaches
Some primary headaches can be triggered by lifestyle factors, including:
- Alcohol, particularly red wine
- Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates
- Changes in sleep or lack of sleep
- Poor posture
- Skipped meals
A secondary headache is a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. Any number of conditions — varying greatly in severity — may cause secondary headaches.
Possible causes of secondary headaches include:
- Acute sinusitis (nasal and sinus infection)
- Arterial tears (carotid or vertebral dissections)
- Blood clot (venous thrombosis) within the brain — separate from stroke
- Brain aneurysm
- Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation)
- Brain tumor
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Chiari malformation (structural problem at the base of your skull)
- Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- Dental problems
- Ear infection (middle ear)
- Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
- Giant cell arteritis (inflammation of the lining of the arteries)
- Glaucoma (acute angle closure glaucoma)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Influenza (flu) and other febrile (fever) illnesses
- Intracranial hematoma
- Medications to treat other disorders
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Overuse of pain medication
- Panic attacks and panic disorder
- Persistent post-concussive symptoms (Post-concussion syndrome)
- Pressure from tight headgear, such as a helmet or goggles
- Pseudotumor cerebri (idiopathic intracranial hypertension)
- Trigeminal neuralgia (as well as other neuralgias, all involving irritation of certain nerves connecting the face and brain)
Some types of secondary headaches include:
- External compression headaches (a result of pressure-causing headgear)
- Ice cream headaches (commonly called brain freeze)
- Medication overuse headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication)
- Sinus headaches (caused by inflammation and congestion in sinus cavities)
- Spinal headaches (caused by low pressure or volume of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia)
- Thunderclap headaches (a group of disorders that involves sudden, severe headaches with multiple causes)
Types and causes of common headaches
The most common types of headaches are tension and migraine headaches. Tension headaches strike when the muscles in the head and neck tighten. Migraines come on when supersensitive nerve endings in the brain create pain.
But what makes the muscles tense, or causes some nerve endings in the brain to become so sensitive? That’s not as well understood. Those causes of headaches can vary from person to person. But some triggers are common.
Tension headaches are often set off by:
- lack of sleep
- caffeine withdrawal
- abrupt cessation of medications that contain caffeine, such as some pain-relieving medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- weather changes
- food and drinks, such as chocolate; processed foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG); or alcohol
Many of those triggers for tension headaches—especially stress, hunger, fatigue, and lack of sleep—can also set off a migraine headache. But nailing down causes of headaches in the migraine category is a little trickier; the headaches may stem from many factors, or combinations of factors. The particular combination is specific to an individual. Potential culprits include
- being around smoke
- certain smells
- bright light, such as sunlight, or flashing lights
- foods, such as aged cheeses, avocados, bananas, chocolate, peas, pork, sour cream, nuts, peanut butter, or yogurt
- changes in estrogen levels for women
- taking certain prescription medications, such as nitroglycerin (Nitrostat), prescribed for a heart condition; and estrogen, prescribed for birth control or menopausal symptoms
- abrupt cessation of caffeine
- food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates (found in cured meats).
How to prevent headaches
When debating how to prevent headaches, the easy answer is to try to avoid the causes of headaches in the first place.
Gabapentin is a prescription for preventing Headaches and Fioricet is medicine for curing Headaches.
But doing that takes careful planning. You’ll have to note your triggers first, and write down the characteristics of your headaches, including their frequency, duration, intensity, as well the circumstances surrounding your headaches, including:
- your medications
- sleep patterns
- alcohol intake
- menstrual cycle, for women
- stress levels
- physical problems.
After you’ve pinpointed these causes of headaches, you’ll begin to see a pattern, and you’ll develop a better idea of how to avoid your triggers and how to prevent headaches.