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Headache facts

  • The head is one of the most common sites of pain in the body.
  • Headaches can be classified as being one of three types: 1) primary, 2) secondary, and 3) cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.
  • Common primary headaches include tension, migraine, and cluster headaches.
  • Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache and usually are treated with rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain.
  • Secondary headaches are usually a symptom of an injury or an underlying illness.
  • Patients should seek medical care for new onset headaches or if headaches are associated with fever, stiff neck, weakness or change in sensation on one side of the body, change in vision, vomiting or change in behavior.

What is a headache?

Headache is defined as a pain arising from the head or upper neck of the body. The pain originates from the tissues and structures that surround the skull or the brain because the brain itself has no nerves that give rise to the sensation of pain (pain fibers). The thin layer of tissue (periosteum) that surrounds bones, muscles that encase the skull, sinuses, eyes, and ears, as well as thin tissues that cover the surface of the brain and spinal cord (meninges), arteries, veins, and nerves, all can become inflamed or irritated and cause headache. The pain may be a dull ache, sharp, throbbing, constant, intermittent, mild, or intense.

How are headaches classified?

In 2005, the International Headache Society released its latest classification system for headache. Because so many people suffer from headaches and because treatment sometimes is difficult, it was hoped that the new classification system would help health care professionals make a specific diagnosis as to the type of headache and allow better and more effective options for treatment.

The society has a 2013 revised 3rd edition (beta) headache publication online but it has as of yet not been finalized.

There are three major categories of headache based upon the source of the pain:

  1. primary headaches;
  2. secondary headaches; and
  3. cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/13/2015

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Migraine Triggers

A migraine is a throbbing painful headache, usually on one side of the head, that is often initiated or "triggered" by specific compounds or situations (environment, stress, hormones, and many others). They occur more often in women (75%, approximately) and may affect a person's ability to do common tasks.

Migraine headaches are often triggered to occur when the person is exposed to a specific set of circumstances.

  • flashing lights
  • anxiety and stress
  • lack of food or sleep
  • hormonal changes
  • foods (red wine, cheese, chocolate, soy sauce, processed meat, and MSG)
  • tyramine
  • caffeine