Headache

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Author: Danette C. Taylor, DO, MS, FACN
    Danette C. Taylor, DO, MS, FACN

    Dr. Taylor has a passion for treating patients as individuals. In practice since 1994, she has a wide range of experience in treating patients with many types of movement disorders and dementias. In addition to patient care, she is actively involved in the training of residents and medical students, and has been both primary and secondary investigator in numerous research studies through the years. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine (Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology). She graduated with a BS degree from Alma College, and an MS (biomechanics) from Michigan State University. She received her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Her internship and residency were completed at Botsford General Hospital. Additionally, she completed a fellowship in movement disorders with Dr. Peter LeWitt. She has been named a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychiatrists. She is board-certified in neurology by the American Osteopathic Board of Neurology and Psychiatry. She has authored several articles and lectured extensively; she continues to write questions for two national medical boards. Dr. Taylor is a member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council (MSAC) of the Alzheimer's Association of Michigan, and is a reviewer for the journal Clinical Neuropharmacology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

View the Headache and Migraine Triggers Slideshow

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

Quick GuideMigraine or Headache? Migraine Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment

Migraine or Headache? Migraine Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment

Headache definition and facts

  • The head is one of the most common sites of pain in the body.
  • Headache or head pain sometimes can be difficult to describe, but some common symptoms include throbbing, squeezing, constant, unrelenting or intermittent. The location may be in one part of the face or skull, or may be generalized involving the whole head.
  • Headache may arise spontaneously or may be associated with activity or exercise. It may be acute onset or it may be chronic in nature with episodes of increasing severity.
  • Headache is often associated with nausea and vomiting. This is especially true with migraine headaches.
  • Head pain can be classified as being one of three types: 1) primary headache, 2) secondary headache, and 3) cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.
  • Common primary headaches include tension, migraine, and cluster headaches.
  • Home remedies for tension headaches, the most common type of primary headache, include rest and over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain.
  • Secondary headaches are usually a symptom of an injury or an underlying illness. Sinus headaches are considered a secondary headache due to increased pressure or infection in the sinuses.
  • Medication overuse headache (rebound headache) is a condition where frequent use of pain medications can lead to persistent head pain. The headache may improve for a short time after medication is taken and then recur ("Rebound headache" has been replaced by the term medication overuse headache.)
  • Individuals 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 2013, the International Headache Society released its latest classification system for headache. Because so many people suffer from headaches, and because treatment is difficult sometimes, it was hoped that the new classification system would help health-care professionals make a more specific diagnosis as to the type of headache a patient has, and allow better and more effective options for treatment.

The guidelines are extensive and the Headache Society recommends that health-care professionals consult the guidelines frequently to make certain of the diagnosis.

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.

The guidelines also note that a patient may have symptoms that are consistent with more than one type of headache, and that more than one type of headache may be present at the same time.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/25/2016

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