Headache: Understanding the causes, types, symptoms, and management

Research Based
Medically reviewed by - Dr Lara Mokhtar, MD Written by - Dr. Shaheen Shah


What is a headache?

Headache is the gradual or sudden pain in the head area. It may occur on both sides or one side of the head region. It is a general condition seen in people; in most cases, it is not a severe sickness. In rare cases, a headache may be accompanied by a grave illness.

Headache is the gradual or sudden pain in the head area. It may occur on both sides or one side of the head region.

About headache

  • Headache is also known as cephalalgia
  • Headache is the most frequent type of pain
  • Anybody can experience a headache at any time
  • Headaches may reappear and may last for several days at a times 1Overview | Researched based study from


Different types of headache

There are around 150-200 types of headaches divided into two categories

Primary headache

  • A primary headache is a disease not due to other conditions such as tension and migraine headaches.

Secondary headache

  • A secondary headache is a disease due to a different cause, such as abrupt caffeine withdrawal or head injury 2Types| Researched based study from

Some of the common types of headaches are

Migraine headache

  • Migraine headache is repeated moderate to severe deep pain in one part of the head. It can last for days.
  • People often have difficulty in light and high sound and sometimes have nausea and vomiting


  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle weakness

Tension headache

  • Tension headache is mild, moderate, or severe pain in the head, neck, or area behind the eyes.
  • It can persist with the periodic occurrence of one to two times a month. The leading cause of tension headaches is stress.3Types| Researched based study from


  • Pain radiates to the face, neck, and shoulders
  • A feeling of pressure on the back of one’s eyes
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Cluster headache

  • Cluster headache is the sharp pain on one side of the head with a tired eyelid, teary eyes, and stuffy nose.3Types| Researched based study from
  • It comes as cycles of headache attacks with headache-free periods in the middle.
  • It may occur eight times daily or continue every day for weeks or months.


  • Tearing eyes
  • Puffed eyelid
  • Blocked nose
  • Sensitive to light and sound

Sinus headache (allergy headache)

  • It occurs due to swelling of the sinuses (air-filled spaces behind the bridge of the nose) due to some allergic reactions.
  • Swelling causes pressure build up in the sinuses and leads to pain


  • Facial pain
  • Blocked nose
  • Nasal discharge
  • Ear pain
  • Toothache

Exertion headache

  • Exertion headache develop after strenuous physical activity such as running and weightlifting.
  • It occurs due to enhanced blood flow to the brain and it can lead to pulsating headaches on both sides of the head
  • It generally resolves within minutes or hours


  • Pulsating pain throughout the head region

Rebound headache

  • It occurs due to the long-term use of pain-relieving drugs to treat headaches.
  • It leads to more frequent headaches than fewer


  • Similar to migraine and tension headaches

Spinal headache (Postdural puncture headache)

  • It occurs due to the seepage of spinal fluid through a pierced hole in the spinal cord’s membrane.
  • The decreased pressure of the spinal fluid on the spinal cord and brain causes headaches.


  • Neck pain
  • Radiating pain in the arms
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea and vomiting

Ice pick headache

  • Ice pick headaches are sharp, intense pain in the head region that lasts for only a few seconds.
  • The pain radiates to different head parts and can occur several times daily without warning.
  • Ice-pick headaches in the same head area might indicate a medical condition.3Types| Researched based study from

Thunderclap headache

  • It is the most intense headache that comes on very fast and reaches a peak within a minute.
  • It can be a symptom of a severe medical condition needing urgent attention.

Caffeine headache

  • Caffeine constricts the brain’s blood vessels. Consuming too much may further narrow the blood vessels and lead to pain.
  • Sudden withdrawal of daily caffeine intake also triggers headaches. Without caffeine, the brain’s blood vessels expand, and the sudden improvement in blood flow causes a headache.

Hormone headache (also called menstrual headache)

  • Hormone headaches are headaches due to hormonal changes viz; estrogen in the body.3Types| Researched based study from
  • it occurs during, after, or before the menstrual period in women

Hypertension headache

  • It is a pulsating headache that occurs when the blood pressure in the body becomes extremely high.
  • It occurs on both sides of the head

Post-traumatic headache

  • It occurs after a head injury and may become persistent
  • It generally lasts for six months to 1 year

Hemicrania continua

  • Hemicrania continua are a persistent form of moderate headache occurring continuously on one side of the head and face and lasting up to 90 days.
  • One can also experience occasional periods of severe pain a few times daily 3Types| Researched based study from


Causes of headache

  • Dehydration
  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes
  • Strong odors
  • Regular smoking
  • Regular nicotine consumption
  • Certain foods such as chocolate, cheese, caffeine
  • Skipping meals
  • Under eating
  • Nutrient deficiency
  • Exposure to allergens
  • Weather change
  • Incorrect sitting position
  • Lack of sleep
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Excessive cough
  • Hereditary(running in families)
  • Infections(cold,fever)


Symptoms of headache

Common symptoms are

  • Pain in the head region
  • Pain radiating to the eye, face, neck, and shoulder area4Symptoms| Researched based study from
  • Seeing lines or spots
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Numbness
  • A pressured feeling in the back of the eyes
  • Sensitive to sound and light

Other symptoms, along with headaches, need medical attention

  • High fever(102 to 104 degree Fahrenheit)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty in walking
  • Blurring of vision
  • Fainting
  • Numbness
  • Seizure (body shaking)
  • Paralysis 4Symptoms| Researched based study from


Diagnosis of headache

CT (Computed tomography) scan

  • It uses a computer and X-rays to take pictures inside the body

MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging)

  • It uses radio waves and a magnetic field to take images inside the body


  • It uses electromagnetic radiation to create images inside the body

Blood tests

  • To determine the medical condition that is causing the headache 5Diagnosis| Researched based study from

Risk factor

Risk factors for headache

  • Increased weight
  • People with increased exercise
  • People without exercise
  • People taking excessive stress
  • Regular smokers
  • Alcoholism (Addicted to alcohol) 6Risk factor| Researched based study from


Management of headache

Tension headache

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication

  • Aspirin-It relieves pain and fever
  • Ibuprofen-It fever, pain, and swellings
  • Naproxen-It helps reduce swelling and pain7Management| Researched based study from

Prescription medication (if OTC medicine doesn’t work)

  • Meloxicam-It relieves pain and inflammation
  • Indomethacin-It relieves moderate to severe pain and reduces swelling
  • Ketorolac-It relieves moderate to severe pain and inflammation7Management| Researched based study from

Migraine headache

  • Rizatriptan-It is used to relieve severe migraine symptoms and prevents the symptoms from getting worse
  • Sumatriptan-It relieves severe migraine and associated nausea and vomiting
  • Propranolol-It reduces anxietyand helps prevent migraine attacks

Cluster headache

  • Sumatripta-It relieves the symptoms and prevents the headache from getting worse
  • Lidocaine-It causes temporary loss of sensation in the skin area

Oxygen therapy

  • The treatment provides extra oxygen to breath7Management| Researched based study from

Thunderclap headache

  • Beta-blockers-It lowers the stress on the heart and blood vessels
  • Calcium channel blockers-It lowers the blood pressure and increases the oxygen and blood flow to the heart 7Management| Researched based study from

Alternative treatment

Alternative methods to manage headache

Engaging in physical activity

  • Exercising regularly
  • It reduces migraine frequency
  • It decreases the intensity and duration of headaches 15Alternative treatment| Researched based study from


  • In acupuncture, needles are inserted into bodily areas to activate sensory nerves.
  • It reduces the frequency of migraine headache attacks 9Alternative treatment| Researched based study from


  • Yoga is an exercise with a specific breathing technique
  • It relieves stress and anxiety
  • It decreases pain and improves the quality of life 8Alternative treatment| Researched based study from


Home remedies to ease Headache.

Home remedies to ease headache

Cold compress

Applying a cold pack or cold compress on the affected area

  • It lowers nerve conduction and constricts blood vessels
  • It reduces pain and swelling 10Remedies| Researched based study from

Keeping hydrated

  • Drinking adequate water reduces headache attacks
  • Also decreases the duration and severity of pain 12Remedies| Researched based study from

Taking adequate sleep

  • Taking the correct amount of sleep reduces the severity of headache
  • It decreases headache frequency 13Remedies| Researched based study from

Drinking tea or coffee

  • Taking beverages such as tea or coffee enhances mood
  • It constricts the blood vessels hence prevent headache11Remedies| Researched based study from


  • Supplementing with ginger eases nausea and vomiting
  • It decreases the symptoms of severe headache 14Remedies | Researched based study from


What are the associated complications?

Common complication

  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeplessness

Serious complication

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Stomach Ulcer
  • Loss of balance
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Seizure(convulsions)
  • Stroke (blood vessels in the brain rupture and bleed)16Complications | Researched based study from


Preventing headache

  • Taking enough water
  • Eating balanced diet
  • Taking adequate sleep
  • Doing regular exercise15Prevention| Researched based study from
  • Staying stress-free 17Prevention | Researched based study from

Take away

Key Takeaways

  • Primary headaches are not life-threatening
  • One could manage primary headaches with proper diagnosis and treatment
  • Secondary headaches require immediate medical attention and can be fatal if left untreated
Disclaimer: The user acknowledges that this article's information is being offered for informational purposes only. Every attempt has been made to guarantee that the article is informational and correct. If they have any doubts or questions about their health, we firmly advise our readers to visit a doctor or other healthcare professional.

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