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Headache (lat. cephalea, cephalalgia) is listed among the 10 most common complaints patients have, according to a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal. Various internal and external factors may cause headaches. Different types of headaches have different manifestations and can be recognized based on patient's descriptions of the pain in most cases. However, if a headache has a sudden onset or if it is persistent or unusual, further investigation is required.

Brain tissue does not have pain receptors, but meninges (membranes that cover and protect brain and spinal cord) do. So every time you feel a headache, there is some process causing your meninges or their blood vessels to stretch, thus activating pain receptors and causing pain.

Here are some of the most common types of headache along with their causes and joining symptoms.

Firstly, all headaches can be classified as primary or secondary. Many people occasionally or frequently have primary headaches, but they are not progressive. Some of the most common primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. Secondary headaches appear due to some pathological process, usually occurring in the head. They tend to be progressive and sometimes signalize a life-threatening condition, such as a brain tumor, intracranial bleeding, brain injury, meningitis, encephalitis, or aneurysm.


Episodes of migraine affect over 10% of world's population. Although they are usually mild to moderate, their intensity can be so high that it prevents the person for performing everyday activities. Migraines are about three times more common in women than in men. The frequency of attacks is variable for different people, although it seems to be fairly constant in one particular person.

The two main types of migraines are classic migraine and common migraine. A classic migraine is accompanied by an aura, and is a less common type. The aura usually comes with visual sensations, such as blind spots, flashing lights and fatigue which appear about half an hour before the headache. A common migraine is just a headache without an aura and it is the most common form. Migraine pain has certain characteristics that differentiate it from other types of headaches. It usually starts on one side of the head and then spreads to both sides, and the pain is often pulsating (feels stronger with every heartbeat). Episodes of migraine attack usually last for several days and the pain then disappears until the next episode. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, sweating, and weakness. During the attack, the person often feels the need to avoid noise and light as they worsen the symptoms.

A wide range of medications are used to treat migraine episodes.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used for persons with mild to moderate migraines. For severe migraines that last long and do not react to NSAIDs, there is a specific treatment for migraines which usually includes drugs from the triptans group.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common headaches among the general population (roughly 50% of people experience occasional episodes of tension headache). They can appear periodically or every day in some people. Their intensity is mild to moderate, but it has been shown that they are benign and do not affect other aspects of health. People usually liken the feeling of tension headaches to the sensation of someone putting pressure around their head or even neck. The pain is constant and its intensity changes during the day. Tension headache episodes can be induced by some stressful event, poor nutrition, exhaustion, smoking, alcohol, and other factors.

Cluster Headache

Cluster headache is the most severe type headache in terms of pain intensity. The pain is sometimes so intense that persons lose their control, often hitting their head with objects or against the wall in the moments of despair. Attacks can last from several minutes to several hours. Luckily, these headaches are fairly rare and usually reappear after a long period of time (months or more often years). They are not progressive and there is no evidence that they could be life-threatening.

A new and unusual headache that lasts longer than expected should always be examined in detail by a neurologist in order to exclude secondary headache due to more serious causes. If all the tests return normal, you are probably dealing with some of the primary headaches discussed above. The causes of primary headaches are still unknown, although there are many theories, mostly based on constitutional functional disturbances of small blood vessels in the brain.

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