Types of Headaches

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020

Headache, or pain in the head or face, is 1 of the common health complaints that people bring to their doctor. A headache can be mild, or severe enough to cause someone to miss work, school, and social functions. The pain may be felt in the front of the head, around the eyes, across the back of the head, or in the neck. Headaches can be rare or frequent.

2 main types of headache

There are 2 main types of headache: primary and secondary. A secondary headache is caused by some other health condition such as a brain tumor. A primary headache is not the result of an underlying medical condition. Migraine is a type of primary headache. Some headaches are called cephalgias. Other types of primary headache include:1

Facts about headache

Nearly everyone will get a headache at some point in their life. However, in any given year, 10 percent of people will have migraine. Trigeminal autonomic cephalgias, or cluster headaches, are a rare type of headache.2

Headaches cost the economy roughly $14 billion a year in lost work hours, reduced productivity, and treatments. Of this, about $1 billion each year is spent on unnecessary brain imaging.2

Other types of headache

With primary headache, the head pain is not caused by another health condition. In secondary headache, another health condition causes head pain. Common secondary causes of headache include brain injury, brain or spinal cord tumors, or infection.1

Within these types, people may describe their headache as:

What causes a headache

The pain of a headache may begin in the network of nerves that spread over the scalp, in the face, jaw, or neck. Headaches may also be caused by tension in the head or neck muscles or in the blood vessels of the brain. Muscle tension or changes in the nerves may be caused by:1

  • Dehydration
  • Lack of sleep
  • Skipping meals
  • Changing hormone levels
  • Certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • Certain foods
  • Stress

Treating a headache

Most of the time, pain relief is the only treatment needed for a headache. Depending on the type of headache, relief may include:1

  • Drugs such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen
  • A warm or cool compress
  • Gentle stretching or massage of sore muscles
  • Rest, especially in a cool, dark room
  • Hydration
  • Caffeine
  • Certain blood pressure drugs, muscle relaxants, nasal sprays, and antidepressants
  • Oxygen therapy

Lifestyle changes, such as getting more sleep or cutting out some foods, may help reduce the number of headaches a person gets.

When a headache can be dangerous

Most of the time, a headache is a minor health concern. However, in some cases, headaches may be a sign of a serious disorder or disease. You should seek immediate medical help if you have:1,2

  • Headaches that occur more often or increase in severity
  • Happen every day
  • Occur suddenly and feel like a thunderclap, especially if the pain is severe
  • Begin after age 50
  • Change in from your usual pattern
  • Cause seizures or confusion
  • Occur with fever, higher blood pressure, a stiff neck, vision changes, changes in sensation, weakness, fainting, or loss of coordination

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