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Headache

Definition

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Headache is pain in any region of the head. Headaches may occur on one or both sides of the head, be isolated to a certain location, radiate across the head from one point, or have a viselike quality.

A headache may appear as a sharp pain, a throbbing sensation or a dull ache. Headaches can develop gradually or suddenly, and may last from less than an hour to several days.

Causes

Your headache symptoms can help your doctor determine its cause and the appropriate treatment. Most headaches aren't the result of a serious illness, but some may result from a life-threatening condition requiring emergency care.

Headaches are generally classified by cause:

Primary headaches

A primary headache is caused by overactivity of or problems with pain-sensitive structures in your head. A primary headache isn't a symptom of an underlying disease.

Chemical activity in your brain, the nerves or blood vessels surrounding your skull, or the muscles of your head and neck (or some combination of these factors) can play a role in primary headaches. Some people may also carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches.

The most common primary headaches are:

 

A few headache patterns also are generally considered types of primary headache, but are less common. These headaches have distinct features, such as an unusual duration or pain associated with a certain activity.

Although generally considered primary, each could be a symptom of an underlying disease. They include:

 

Some primary headaches can be triggered by lifestyle factors, including:

  • Alcohol, particularly red wine
  • Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates
  • Changes in sleep or lack of sleep
  • Poor posture
  • Skipped meals
  • Stress

 Secondary headaches

A secondary headache is a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. Any number of conditions — varying greatly in severity — may cause secondary headaches.

Possible causes of secondary headaches include:

 Some types of secondary headaches include:

 

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency care

A headache can be a symptom of a serious condition, such as a stroke, meningitis or encephalitis.

Go to a hospital emergency room or call 911 or your local emergency number if you're experiencing the worst headache of your life, a sudden, severe headache or a headache accompanied by:

  • Confusion or trouble understanding speech
  • Fainting
  • High fever, greater than 102 F to 104 F (39 C to 40 C)
  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of your body
  • Stiff neck
  • Trouble seeing
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble walking
  • Nausea or vomiting (if not clearly related to the flu or a hangover)

 

Schedule a doctor's visit

See a doctor if you experience headaches that:

  • Occur more often than usual
  • Are more severe than usual
  • Worsen or don't improve with appropriate use of over-the-counter drugs
  • Keep you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities
  • Cause you distress, and you would like to find treatment options that enable you to control them better

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