A headache is a pain in your head or face that’s often described as a pressure that’s throbbing, constant, sharp or dull. Headaches can differ greatly in regard to pain type, severity, location and frequency.
Headaches are a very common condition that most people will experience many times during their lives. They’re the most common form of pain and are a major reason cited for days missed at work or school, as well as visits to healthcare providers.
While most headaches aren’t dangerous, certain types can be a sign of a more serious condition.
If you or your child has any of the following headache symptoms, get medical care right away:
Also seek medical care right away if your headache is associated with neurological symptoms, such as:
Reach out to your healthcare provider if you have headaches often or if they’re very severe.
There are more than 150 types of headaches. They fall into two main categories: primary and secondary headaches.
Dysfunction or over-activity of pain-sensitive features in your head cause primary headaches. They’re not a symptom of or caused by an underlying medical condition. Some people may have genes that make them more likely to develop primary headaches.
Types of primary headaches include:
A migraine is a common neurological condition that causes a variety of symptoms, most notably a throbbing headache on one side of your head. Migraines often get worse with physical activity, lights, sounds or smells. They usually last at least four hours or even days.
Primary headaches typically aren’t dangerous, but they can be very painful and disrupt your day-to-day life.
An underlying medical condition causes secondary headaches. They’re considered a symptom or sign of a condition.
Types of secondary headaches that aren’t necessarily dangerous and resolve once the underlying condition is treated include:
Spinal and Thunderclap headaches are types of secondary headaches that can be a sign of a serious or potentially life-threatening condition.
Spinal headaches: Spinal headaches are intense headaches that occur when spinal fluid leaks out of the membrane covering your spinal cord, usually after a spinal tap. Most spinal headaches can be treated at home, but prolonged, untreated spinal headaches can cause life-threatening complications, including subdural hematoma and seizures.
Thunderclap headaches: A thunderclap headache is an extremely painful headache that comes on suddenly, like a clap of thunder. This type of headache reaches its most intense pain within one minute and lasts at least five minutes. While thunderclap headaches can sometimes be harmless, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. They can be a sign of:
Your provider will complete a physical examination, discuss your medical history and talk to you about your headache symptoms. This conversation is part of a headache evaluation.
During the headache evaluation, your provider will ask you about your headache history, including:
Some primary headaches can be triggered by lifestyle factors or situations, including:
Your headache can be more accurately diagnosed by knowing:
Neurological tests focus on ruling out diseases that might also cause headaches. A disorder of your central nervous system might be suspected in the development of serious headaches. After completing the medical history part of the evaluation, your provider may perform physical and neurological examinations. They’ll look for signs and symptoms of an illness or condition that may be causing the headache, including:
After evaluating the results of your headache history, physical examination and neurological examination, your physician should be able to determine what type of headache you have, whether or not a serious problem is present and whether additional tests are needed.
Although scans and other imagining tests can be important when ruling out other diseases, they don’t help in diagnosing migraines, cluster or tension-type headaches. But if your healthcare provider thinks that your headaches are being caused by another medical condition, there are several imaging tests they may order. A CT scan or MRI can help determine if your headaches are connected to an issue with your central nervous system. Both of these tests produce cross-sectional images of your brain that can show any abnormal areas or problems.