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What causes headaches?

Headache is a general term for pain anywhere in the region of the head or neck. Headaches that are not caused by another medical condition are called primary headaches. Headaches that are symptoms of another disorder are called secondary headaches.

Types of primary headaches:

  • Migraine headache can cause intense throbbing or pulsing pain in one area of the head, and it is often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can last four to 72 hours, and the frequency and duration of attacks varies from person to person.
  • Occipital neuralgia or tension headache is characterized by mild to moderate pain and muscle tightness in the head or neck. These headaches occur when the muscles in the head and neck become tense, or contract. Tension headaches may be chronic or episodic.
  • Cluster headache causes the most severe type of pain of any primary headache. Someone having an attack may wake up in the middle of the night with intense pain in or around an eye that lasts a few hours. Attacks usually occur at the same time of day or night for weeks or months. Cluster periods are followed by remission periods that last months or even years.

Secondary headaches may result from the following:

  • Overuse of pain medication
  • Acute sinusitis
  • Fever
  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Cerebrovascular disorder
  • Brain tumor
  • Stroke
  • Head injury
  • Abnormally high or low intracranial pressure
  • Nerve disorder, such as trigeminal neuralgia

Headache Symptoms

Headache disorders differ from each other in terms of the location of the pain produced (i.e. front, side, or back of head) and other symptoms that accompany the pain (i.e. nausea and vomiting in migraine).

More specific symptom information for each type of headache disorder is available by following the links below:

Headaches can sometimes be a sign of a more serious medical problem. Contact a medical professional if you are having frequent or severe headaches.

Headache Treatments

Treatment for headache disorders usually involves taking medication to prevent attacks and relieve symptoms during attacks.

Your headaches may also improve if you are able to identify and avoid your triggers.

Additional Information

How common headache disorders?

Headache disorders are among the most common neurological disorders. It has been estimated that 50 percent adults worldwide have experienced a headache disorder at least once within the last year.

Who gets headache disorders?

Headache disorders affect men and women of all ages.

How are headache disorders diagnosed?

To diagnose a headache disorder, your doctor will likely perform physical and neurological examinations and review your personal and family medical histories. An imaging test or a lumbar puncture may also be used in some cases.

Information and Resources

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Library of Medicine
World Health Organization

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It has been estimated that 50 percent adults worldwide have experienced a headache disorder at least once within the last year.
Medically Reviewed by Kerry Knievel, DO, FAHS on June 8, 2021

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