What is a Headache?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Headache is a common health complaint that affects millions of people in the UK. In the majority of cases, headache is not serious and can be easily treated with medication or lifestyle changes such as reducing stress or ensuring a good level of hydration.

Types of headache

Headaches are divided into two main types according to what has caused them, as below:

  • A primary headache is a headache that is not caused by any other underlying health problem.
  • A secondary headache has another underlying cause such as disease.

Primary headaches

Some examples of primary headaches are given below.

Migraines

A migraine is a less common form of headache that causes recurrent and disabling pain that interrupts everyday life. Migraines are often described as a pounding or throbbing pain that occurs on one or both sides of the head.

Tension headache

This is the most common form of headache and is felt as a dull ache and feeling of pressure in the sides, front and top of the head. One of the main causes is stress but a tension headache can also be caused by excessive alcohol consumption, depression, skipping meals and dehydration.

Cluster headaches

These are extremely painful headaches that cause intense pain in the eye. These headaches tend to occur in clusters, over a period of a month or two during the same time of year.

Secondary headaches

Some examples of factors that may cause a secondary headache are listed below.

  • Head injury or concussion
  • Flu or cold
  • An allergic reaction
  • A sinusitis attack
  • Hormonal changes during menstruation, the menopause and pregnancy
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders that affect the joint between the jaw and the skull
  • Giant cell arteritis, which refers to inflammation of the medium and large arteries in the head and neck

Diagnosis and treatment

In cases of suspected secondary headache, doctors may perform various tests to identify the cause. A physical examination may be performed along with blood tests and imaging studies such as a computed tomography (CT) scan and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

For cases of primary headache, the use of analgesic medication is usually enough to relieve symptoms.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

    Last Updated: Aug 6, 2014

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