What is a headache or migraine?

A headache is pain in the head or neck. Because the brain does not have nerves, the pain comes from the tissues around the skull or brain. A headache can develop if the periosteum (the layer of tissue that surrounds the skull, sinuses, eyes or ears) and meninges (tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord) become inflamed or irritated.

A migraine is a recurrent, pounding headache that typically affects one side of the head. Migraines are commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, tingling in the extremities and visual impairments. Symptoms typically last between four and seventy-two hours. Up to a third of patients have pain on both sides of the head.

Types of headaches or migraines

Headaches can be classified as:

Primary headache — include tension headaches, migraine headaches and cluster headaches.

  • Tension headaches are typically stress related and start in the middle of the day.
  • Cluster headaches are a rare headache that occurs suddenly and develops every day for up to 12 weeks.

Secondary headache — typically symptoms of an underlying illness, for example sinus headaches.

Cranial neuralgias, facial pain and other headaches

The most common headaches are tension headaches or migraines.

Causes of headaches or migraines

The cause of a headache depends on what type of headache you have.

Tension headaches
A tension headache is typically caused by stress, depression or hormonal changes.

Cluster headaches
Cluster headache can be triggered by:

  • Heavy smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Abnormal levels of hormones

Migraines
Causes of migraines include:

  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors
  • Change in body chemicals

Risk factors for headaches or migraines

Risk factors are similar for people who suffer from headaches or migraines and include:

  • Gender — women are more likely to develop migraine headaches.
  • Age — younger people are more at risk for migraines.
  • Obesity — you are more at risk to develop migraines if you are overweight.
  • Mental state — depressed or anxious people are more likely to develop migraines.

Symptoms of headaches or migraines

Symptoms of a headache depend on the type of headache you have.

Tension headaches

Symptoms of tension headache include:

  • Pain in the head, around the eyes or temples
  • Tightness or pressure
  • Aches in your jaw or neck

Cluster headaches

Symptoms of cluster headaches include:
  • Severe pain around or behind the eyes
  • Red, swollen nose

Migraines

Symptoms of migraines include:

  • Pounding head pain that can begin around the eyes, the side of the head or in your forehead
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Diagnosis of headaches or migraines

Your primary care doctor can determine which headache you have by reviewing your symptoms. If you have a history of headaches, it is helpful to keep a log of your headaches to determine the time and pattern of your symptoms.

In some cases, your primary care physician will perform diagnostic tests such as:

  • Blood tests
  • X-ray
  • Computed tomography (CT scan)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Treatment for headaches or migraines

Symptoms of tension or mild headaches can be relieved with medications and rest. Ask your primary care doctor what over-the-counter medication is most appropriate for you. If treated early, symptoms of headaches can be relieved quickly.

If you have frequent headaches or migraines, your doctor can prescribe a medication that can prevent headaches.

Treatments for cluster headaches include medications that are preventive and reactive. The preventive medication should be taken each day during the cluster period, and the other should be taken to relieve the symptoms of the current headache.

If you have a history of headaches, you can make several lifestyle modifications to prevent and manage headaches including:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Minimizing stress
  • Eating regular, healthy meals
  • Drinking water throughout the day
  • Exercising regularly

Find a primary care doctor nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you