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What Is a Headache?

A headache refers to pain in any region of the head. Headaches can appear as sharp pain, dull aches or a throbbing sensation. They can occur on one or both sides of the head, be isolated, radiate across the head or feel like something is squeezing your head. Headaches can develop gradually or suddenly and last anywhere from less than an hour to several days.

What Are the Different Types of Headaches?

There are over 300 types of headaches, most with unknown causes. Most headaches fall under the category of primary headaches and include:

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. These can range from mild to moderate and can happen either infrequently or, for some people, several times a week.

A typical tension headache feels like a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head and can sometimes extend down to the neck and shoulders. Tension headaches can last from 20 minutes to two hours. An over-the-counter pain reliever, heating pad, a short nap, snack, yoga or a shower can help relieve a tension headache.


Migraines happen less often than tension headaches but are more severe in pain. Migraines are more common in women than in men. However, men over the age of 40 who suffer from migraines may be more likely to experience a heart attack.

Genetics play a role in about 70% of migraines. In fact, most people who suffer from migraines have at least one close relative or family member who also suffers from migraines.

Migraines are often preceded by several hours of fatigue, sluggishness, restlessness, depression or irritability and often begin in the evening or during sleep. Some people also experience an aura along with their migraine. An aura is a visual symptom that can include seeing halos, flashing lights, wavy lines, sparkles and in some cases, temporary vision loss.

The majority of people who get migraines don’t experience an aura. In most cases, migraine pain starts on one side of the head, often around the eye and temple, and spreads to the back of the head. Migraine pain is often described as throbbing or pulsating and can be combined with nausea.

Some symptoms of migraines are similar to those of sinus headaches. To differentiate from sinus headaches, we recommend using the acronym POUND.

Pulsating pain
One-day duration
Unilateral (one-sided) pain
Nausea and vomiting
Disabling intensity

Migraine attacks can last from four to 24 hours. Treating a migraine with over-the-counter pain relievers and a combination of caffeine can help stop the pain if taken very early in the attack. If over-the-counter medications are not effective in treating a migraine, doctors may prescribe triptans or preventative medications to their patients.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are the most uncommon, but most severe type of headache. These types of headaches are more typical among middle-aged men with a history of smoking. Cluster headaches get their name as they tend to come in clusters, with one to eight headaches a day, and often happen every year or two during the same time of year.

These types of headaches happen very abruptly and can last 30 minutes to an hour. Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of the head and cause the eye to be red, painful, watery and droopy. The nose can also run or be blocked and there may be associated nausea and sensitivity to light. Those who suffer from cluster headaches may become restless and agitated during the attack.

Cluster headaches can be treated by inhaling high-flow oxygen or with other medications including triptans or verapamil.

What Causes Headaches?

There are several factors that can cause headaches.

Common triggers for tension headaches include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or joint problems in the neck or jaw

While many migraines can occur without warning, most are set off by a certain trigger, which varies from person to person. People who suffer from migraines are often sensitive to the same trigger.

Common migraine triggers include:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Change of weather, such as rising heat or humidity
  • Sensory stimulators, like loud noises, strong smells or flickering lights
  • Dietary triggers, such as missing a meal, alcohol, a change in caffeine intake, MSG, chocolate, aged cheese or nitrates in cured meats and fish

Cluster headaches are not usually associated with the usual dietary or stress triggers like their tension headache and migraine counterparts. The patterns associated with cluster headaches suggest that abnormalities in the body’s biological clock could play a role. Other triggers of cluster headaches can include alcohol or certain medications such as nitroglycerin.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Most headaches or migraines are not a sign of a serious medical problem. People who suffer from headaches or migraines know what's normal for them. If you experience any new headache symptoms or problems that are more severe than usual, you may want to talk to your doctor.

New headache symptoms that could prompt an immediate call to your doctor or neurologist include:

  • Trouble with speech, confusion, personality changes or seizures
  • Fever, a stiff neck, shortness of breath or a rash
  • Severe nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness, sudden loss of balance, weakness, numbness, tingling or not being able to move your body
  • Headaches that are triggered by bending, coughing, sexual activity or other intense physical activity
  • Headache pain that wakes you up at night
  • Headaches after a head injury or accident
  • A new type of headache that starts after age 50
  • A recent headache symptom that is different to your usual pattern of attacks

The following headache symptoms may not warrant urgent care, but you should let your doctor know if you:

  • Have headaches that won’t go away and keep getting worse
  • Have three or more headaches per week
  • Need more than two or three doses of over the counter medications per week to alleviate symptoms
  • Need to take pain reliever every day or almost every day for headache relieve
  • Have headaches that interfere with your daily life


Headaches can also be a symptom of a concussion. At Banner Brain & Spine, we are dedicated to providing education and helping prevent concussions. If you hit your head and think you may be experiencing a concussion, seek medical help right away.

Headaches and migraines can be debilitating and interfere with your daily life. If you’re looking for headache and migraine relief, the experts at Banner Brain & Spine have your back.