Headaches

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What are headaches?

A headache is a pain that affects any part of the head.

Most of us will experience some form of headache at some point in our lives.The World Health Organization estimates that 50-75% of adults experience at least one headache every year.1

There are many causes of headaches, and so it can be difficult to figure out what the exact cause of your headache is.

People often worry that their headache may be a sign of something dangerous, but  most  headaches are usually harmless. 

Even though it is unlikely that your headaches are dangerous, it is still important for you to know which  worrying signs or ‘Red Flags’ you should look out for.

Woman sitting on her coach feeling tired and with a headache holding her head.

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What symptoms do headaches cause?

The main symptom people feel when they have a headache is pain around their head.

Different headaches will produce different types of pain.

Where do headaches cause pain?

The term headache is very broad. The area where people may feel pain during a headache could be:

  • Over the temples
  • Behind the eyes
  • Over the “crown” (the highest point on the head)
  • The back of the head
  • Across the forehead
  • Over the jaw
  • Around the sinuses (over the forehead, below the eyes and around the nose)

The pain may affect one side of the head (unilateral pain) or it may affect both sides (bilateral pain).

Types of headaches on an image of a head.

Headaches can cause different types of pain. People with headaches may feel:

 

  • A tight band-like pain
  • Pain that throbs or pulses
  • Dull pain
  • Sharp pain

Depending on the type of headache, the pain may develop rapidly, or it may develop over a longer period of time. Headaches can last anywhere from minutes to days depending on the cause.

 

In some rare cases, a headache will continue to last until the cause of the pain is treated. For example, if a headache is caused by bleeding around the brain, doctors will have to stop the bleeding before the pain will go away.

There are certain things that can trigger a headache to start, for example: 

 

  • Noise
  • Lights
  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Hormonal changes during periods/menstrual cycles

Headaches may cause more symptoms than just pain. They may also cause: 

 

  • Dizziness
  • Feeling queasy or nauseous
  • Vomiting
  • Sore throat
  • High temperature
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Visual changes or disturbance

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Common causes of headaches

Most headaches are not life-threatening.

Although they are not life-threatening, even ‘harmless’ headaches can cause a great deal of suffering.

Headaches can greatly interfere with people’s daily lives. Because of this, they have been labelled as one of the most important causes of disability worldwide.2

Fortunately, the cause of the headache can often be identified, and tailored treatment can be given to help improve symptoms.

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Illustration of a tension headache

 

Tension headaches, also known as tension-type headaches (TTH), are the most common type of headache. They affect between 30-78% of people.3

What causes tension headaches?

Tension headaches occur when the muscles in the head and neck contract, or “tense up”, hence the name.

There are many factors that can cause tension headaches, including:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of sleep
  • Noise
  • Bright lights or computer screens
  • Squinting
  • Missing meals
  • Dehydration
  • Tension of muscles around the jaw

How do tension headaches feel?

Tension headaches cause constant pain that is felt on both sides of the head. People who experience tension headaches often say it feels like a tight band across their forehead. The pain is usually mild, and never severe enough to severely disrupt the person’s day.

Tension headaches usually do not cause other symptoms, just pain.

How long do tension headaches last?

Tension headaches vary in their length. They may last anywhere from 30 minutes to a number of days.4

Some people may get tension headaches frequently. People who get tension headaches 15 times or more per month are classed as having chronic tension headaches.

Tension headache diagnosis

 

Most people will not seek medical attention for tension headaches, as they tend to be relatively mild.

If you are having frequent tension headaches, or find yourself needing to take painkillers very regularly to manage your headaches, you should seek medical advice.

Tension headache treatment

These headaches do not usually require medical attention, and can be easily treated with over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol.*

You may be able to prevent yourself from getting future tension headaches by making lifestyle changes. You may also find it helpful to keep a headache diary so you can identify any triggers that may be linked to your headaches.

The following things may help prevent you from getting tension headaches:

  • Get your eyesight checked to be sure that this isn’t the cause of your symptoms
  • Take regular breaks from looking at electronic screens to give your eyes time to relax and reduce eye strain
  • Make sure you’re drinking enough water
  • Eat meals regularly
  • Practice relaxation techniques to reduce tension in your muscles
  • Wear earplugs if  you are frequently being exposed to loud noises
  • Take a hot shower if you are feeling tense, to help relax your muscles

*It is very important that you see a doctor if you are taking lots of painkillers because you are getting frequent headaches. Even if you stick to the recommended dose, using painkillers for a long time can cause medication-overuse headaches.

Illustration of a migraine headache

 

 

Migraines are another fairly common cause of headache. 

What causes migraines?

It is not clear what causes migraines. Studies suggest that migraines may occur as a result of problems with the blood vessels, nervous system, or signalling molecules in the brain. 

Some studies suggest that inheriting certain genes may increase the risk of developing migraines. This is because people with a family history of migraines are more likely to experience migraines themselves.5 

Other studies have also shown that females are more likely to develop migraines.4

Much more research is needed to figure out what causes migraines.

Migraine triggers

Although it is unclear what the exact cause of migraines is, there are certain things that seem to trigger migraine episodes in some people.

Triggers will vary from person to person, but some triggers that may cause migraines are:

  • Certain foods such as chocolate or cheese
  • Alcohol
  • Changes in sleeping schedule
  • Exercise
  • Hormone changes during your period (menstrual cycle)

How do migraines feel?

 

Migraines usually cause pain over one side of the head that feels as if it is pulsing or throbbing. The pain can also be over both sides of the head, especially in children and teenagers.

People suffering from a migraine may also feel queasy, and they may vomit.

What are migraine auras?

Sometimes when people get migraines they also experience something called an aura.

An aura is a collection of sensory symptoms which may begin before the pain begins, or during the pain. 

Sensory symptoms can take the form of any unusual changes to your senses. Most commonly, people experience visual symptoms, such as seeing zigzag lines or black spots across their vision. 

Less commonly, an aura may cause other abnormal sensations such as pins and needles. In rare cases, migraine auras can even cause people to have difficulty moving their muscles.

If you are experiencing sensation changes or having difficulty moving, you should call the emergency services. You will need a medical assessment to make sure that these symptoms are not a sign of a more serious condition, such as a stroke.

How long do migraines last?

Migraines can last anywhere from 4-72 hours.4

After someone has had a migraine, they usually feel exhausted.

Migraine diagnosis

A diagnosis can usually be made by the doctor just by asking you questions about your symptoms. 

Examinations and tests are not usually needed. However, your doctor may choose to examine you to look for any unusual signs, just to make sure there isn’t something else that’s causing your headaches.

If the diagnosis is unclear, your doctor may ask you to keep a diary of your symptoms. This symptom diary will help you keep track of when your migraines occur, and what triggers them. This can provide your doctor with a bit more information to help them make a diagnosis.

Migraine treatment

Treating migraines is complicated. Put simply, treatment involves using two types of medication: 

  1. medication to help treat the migraine attacks, and 
  2. medication to help prevent the migraine attack

Treating migraine attacks

Medications used to treat migraines include:

 

  • Over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen*
  • Special migraine medications prescribed by doctors called triptans (e.g) sumatriptan
  • Anti-sickness medications.

Preventing migraine attacks

Medications used to prevent migraines include:

 

  • Antiepileptic drugs such as topiramate
  • Beta-blockers such as propranolol 

Keeping a trigger diary may also help you learn which things make your migraines worse, so you can learn to avoid them if possible.

If you are experiencing frequent migraines, your doctor may refer you to a specialist to help manage your migraines.

 

*It is very important that you see a doctor if you are taking lots of painkillers because you are getting frequent headaches. Even if you stick to the recommended dose, using painkillers for a long time can cause medication-overuse headaches.

Illustration of a cluster headache

Cluster headaches are not as common as tension headaches or migraines. However, because they cause such intense pain, they are considered to be far more severe.

What causes cluster headaches?

It is not yet known what causes cluster headaches. Studies have shown that certain genes increase the risk of getting cluster headaches.6 

Being male also greatly increases your risk, as cluster headaches are far more common in males than females.4

How do cluster headaches feel?

 

Cluster headaches get their name from the pattern in which they occur. 

People who experience cluster headaches will get frequent headaches for periods of around 1-3 months.

During these periods, people will suffer headaches on an almost daily basis.

After this time, the headaches will usually disappear for a period of months to years, before they return again. 

The pain felt in cluster headaches is so severe that it leaves people unable to function. People with cluster headaches describe the pain as “drilling” and “excruciating”. The pain always affects just one side of the head, usually around the eye and temple.

Other symptoms can also occur alongside the pain. These symptoms will occur on the same side of the face as the pain. 

These symptoms include:

  • Watery eye
  • Bloodshot appearance of the eye
  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Runny nose

How long do cluster headaches last?

A cluster headache can last between 15 minutes to 3 hours.4

How are cluster headaches diagnosed?

As with migraines and tension headaches, diagnosis is usually made based on the history of your symptoms. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, and then decide if they are caused by cluster headaches.

How are cluster headaches treated?

Because of the severity of the pain, patients with cluster headaches are usually best cared for by specialist doctors.

Treatment is divided into two groups: 

  1. treatments to manage the headache attacks, and 
  2. treatments to prevent the attacks

Treatments for managing the attacks:

 

  • Oxygen - People who suffer from cluster headaches may be given their own oxygen supply. When they are experiencing an attack they can breathe in the oxygen through a face mask. Breathing in this high concentration of oxygen helps relieve the pain.
  • Triptans - These medications can be given as an injection into the fat underneath the skin (sumatriptan), or given via a spray that goes into the nose (sumatriptan or zolmitriptan)

Treatments for preventing the attacks:

 

  • Calcium channel blockers called verapamil
  • Lithium, which is a medication often used to treat bipolar disorder.
  • A type of steroids called corticosteroids may also be used

Illustration of a sinus headache
What causes sinusitis?

Sinuses are spaces within the bones of the skull. They are lined with a special type of tissue called mucosa. 


The mucosa in our sinuses can become inflamed because of an infection or allergies. When the mucosa becomes inflamed, this is known as sinusitis.

 

Image of a healthy sinus and sinusitis anatomy and changes.


How does sinusitis feel?

Sinusitis can cause pain in the sinuses, which is felt above and below the eyes, and around the nose. The pain usually gets worse when you bend over.

There are usually other symptoms alongside the pain, such as:

  • A runny nose
  • A sensation that your ears or nose are “blocked”
  • Tenderness on touching your face

How long does sinusitis last?

Sinusitis typically lasts 1-2 weeks.

How is sinusitis diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose sinusitis by simply asking you a few questions. A CT scan can be used, but is rarely needed.

How is sinusitis treated?

This can be treated with a nasal spray called beclomethasone.

If the sinusitis is caused by a severe bacterial infection, antibiotics may be used to fight the infection.

If sinusitis is caused by allergies, allergy medication such as antihistamines may be useful.

Medication-overuse headache is the most common secondary headache disorder. 

 

A secondary headache disorder simply means a headache that is caused by an underlying medical problem.

 

If you have been frequently taking painkillers and you find yourself experiencing daily headaches,  you should speak to your doctor about medication-overuse headaches.

 

What causes medication-overuse headaches?

 

Medication-overuse headaches happen when people regularly use painkillers to help them cope with the pain of their headaches. 

 

If you are frequently using painkillers, your body gets used to them. When you stop taking them, your body may cause a withdrawal, or rebound, headache. This headache is called a medication-overuse headache.

 

They usually affect people with primary headache conditions such as migraines, tension headaches or cluster headaches.7

 

Medication-overuse headaches usually occur when people use headache medication on at least 10-15 days a month, for three or more months.8

 

Medications that can cause medication-overuse headaches include aspirin, ibuprofen, paracetamol and triptans.6

 

The important thing to note here, is that you can develop medication-overuse headache even if you follow the dose instructions for the painkillers. 

 

How do medication-overuse headaches feel?

 

Medication-overuse headaches can be very difficult to recognise, because they can cause a wide range of different kinds of pain and symptoms. 

 

Medication-headaches may cause pain that:

  • Affects one side or both sides of the head
  • Feels like a tight band, or feels pulsating/throbbing in nature
  • Causes symptoms such as vomiting, or causes no symptoms at all

 

Medication-overuse headaches usually occur at least every second day.

 

How is medication-overuse headache diagnosed?

 

A diagnosis is made based on a patient history of headaches and use of painkillers.

 

How is medication-overuse headache treated?

 

The main part of treating medication-overuse headache is to stop taking the medications that cause the overuse headache. 

 

If your doctor diagnoses you with medication-overuse headache, they will give you information on how to safely stop taking the medications.

 

You will still be able to take painkillers in future, but your doctor will provide you with guidance on what kind of painkillers to take, and how frequently you can take them. They may also suggest going on preventative medication, to help reduce the number of headaches you get.

Uncommon but dangerous causes of headaches

Temporal arteritis, also known as giant cell arteritis, is a rare but serious condition. If suspected, temporal arteritis should be treated immediately, as it can cause blindness. 

 

What causes temporal arteritis?

 

Temporal arteritis is where the arteries over the temple area of the head become inflamed. 

 

The cause of this is not yet known. 

 

It is thought that the inflammation may occur as a result of the body’s immune system functioning abnormally, but more research is required to truly understand the causes.

 

People with polymyalgia rheumatica (an inflammatory disorder causing stiffness in pain in muscles) are more likely to suffer from temporal arteritis.

 

Temporal arteritis is much more common in people over 50.



How does temporal arteritis feel?

People suffering from temporal arteritis may feel pain on one or both sides of the forehead.

 

They may experience other symptoms such as:

  • Pain over the jaw when eating
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Changes in eyesight
  • Muscle aches
  • Tiredness
  • High temperature/fever

 

How is temporal arteritis diagnosed?

 

The doctor will ask questions about your symptoms. They may also check your temples for tenderness, and check your eyesight for any changes. 

 

If they are worried about your eyesight, they may use a special device called a fundoscope to look at the back of your eyes for any signs of eye problems caused by the temporal arteritis.

 

They will then organise a blood test to check levels of a protein called C-Reactive Protein (CRP). If they find very high levels of this protein in your blood, it can suggest a diagnosis of temporal arteritis. 

 

To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may also organise a biopsy. This involves taking a small piece of tissue from the blood vessel over the temple, and looking at it under a microscope for signs of temporal arteritis. They will use some local anaesthetic to numb the skin, meaning that the biopsy procedure will not be too painful.



How is temporal arteritis treated?

 

Temporal arteritis must be treated immediately to stop complications developing such as blindness.

 

Treatment is simple. People suffering from temporal arteritis are given a course of strong steroids, which is a type of medication used to help reduce inflammation. Your doctor will usually then organise for you to be seen by a specialist to help manage the condition.

 

If you think you have temporal arteritis you should contact your doctor as soon as you can.

This is one of the most dangerous causes of headaches, and can lead to death if it is not treated immediately.

 

What causes subarachnoid haemorrhage?

 

The subarachnoid space is a space between layers of tissue surrounding the brain, and the word haemorrhage means bleeding. Subarachnoid haemorrhage means bleeding into this space around the brain.

 

Usually a subarachnoid haemorrhage occurs due to a burst aneurysm. An aneurysm is an unusual bulge that develops in a blood vessel. These aneurysms can occur in the brain. They do not necessarily cause problems, but if they burst, they can cause a subarachnoid haemorrhage. 

 

Certain factors increase the risk of the aneurysm bursting, for example:

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Using cocaine

 

In a small number of cases, subarachnoid haemorrhage may occur due to a traumatic injury to the head.

 

How does subarachnoid haemorrhage feel?

 

A subarachnoid haemorrhage will cause severe pain that comes on rapidly, and typically affects the back of the head. 

 

People who have had subarachnoid haemorrhage describe it as feeling as if they were “hit over the back of the head”.

 

As well as the headache, someone experiencing a subarachnoid haemorrhage may:

  • Feel dizzy
  • Feel queasy
  • Vomit
  • Feel sensitive to light
  • Feel drowsy
  • Have a stiff neck
  • Have seizures

How is subarachnoid haemorrhage diagnosed?

If the patient has symptoms of subarachnoid haemorrhage, then an urgent CT scan will be carried out.

 

How is subarachnoid haemorrhage treated?

Treatment must be carried out immediately to save a person’s life. 

 

The best treatment is surgery to stop the bleeding. Surgery for subarachnoid haemorrhage usually involves using a small metal clip or coil to stop the aneurysm bleeding.

 

If you think you may be having a subarachnoid haemorrhage, you should contact your emergency services immediately. The emergency number for Iraq is 115, 112 or 122.

Meningitis is another uncommon, but potentially life-threatening cause of headache. It is highly important that it is recognised and treated quickly.

 

What causes meningitis?

 

Our brains are surrounded by layers of tissue, which are known as meningeal layers. When these meningeal layers become inflamed, this is known as meningitis.

 

The inflammation is usually caused by infections from viruses, bacteria or fungi.

 

How does meningitis feel?

 

Meningitis causes a headache that is felt all over the head, that feels worse on bending the head forward.

 

Other symptoms noticed by patients with meningitis are:

 

  • Pain on looking at bright lights
  • Neck stiffness
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Feeling feverish
  • Seizures
  • Feeling queasy or nauseous
  • Vomiting
  • Non-blanching rash (a rash that does not disappear when you press a glass tumbler against it)

 

How is meningitis diagnosed?

 

History and Examination

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They will then examine you to look for any unusual signs that can help, suggest the cause of your headache. For example, a rash.

 

Blood tests

They will take a blood sample to look for signs of inflammation in your blood. High levels of inflammation may suggest that you have an infection. They may also take a sample of blood to send to the labs to check if any bacteria is present.

 

CT Scan and Lumbar Puncture

If your doctor feels a diagnosis of meningitis is likely, they may organise a special test called a lumbar puncture. 

 

Before carrying out the lumbar puncture, your doctor may also organise a CT scan. This is to check your brain for other causes of your symptoms, and to make sure there is nothing unusual in the brain that would make a lumbar puncture dangerous.

 

A specialist will use a needle to take a small sample of fluid, known as cerebrospinal fluid from around your spine. Before using this needle, they will use a much smaller needle and inject a numbing agent to reduce the pain.

 

They can then send this fluid to the lab to get more information on what the cause of your infection is.



How is meningitis treated?

 

Meningitis is treated with medication that targets the infection. 

 

Often, medication may be given before the above tests are carried out. This is because some types of meningitis can be so dangerous that immediate treatment is required, and often that means treating based on a suspicion rather than on lab results.

 

 Depending on what the cause of the infection is, the medication used will differ.

  • For viral infections → antiviral medications are used
  • For bacterial infections → antibiotic medications are used
  • For fungal infections → antifungals are used

If you think you may have meningitis you should contact your emergency services immediately. The emergency number for Iraq is 115, 112 or 122.

Brain tumours are a very rare cause of headaches, but one that people often worry about. 

 

A tumour simply means a group of cells that have not grown normally. 

 

Tumours can grow from a range of different cells in your brain. Tumours can be ‘malignant’ meaning they are cancerous, or ‘benign’ meaning they are not cancerous. 

 

Although benign tumours are not cancerous, both types can cause problems in the brain. 

 

What causes headaches in brain tumours?

The human brain sits inside the bony skull, which is fixed in size. If the brain tumour grows, the brain may become too big for the skull, and cause increased pressure. This increased pressure can cause headaches.

 

How do brain tumour headaches feel?

 

Brain tumours cause headaches that are typically constant and dull in nature. They often feel worse when lying down, bending over or coughing.

 

Brain tumors may also cause:

  • Problems with vision
  • New deafness in one ear
  • Personality changes
  • Changes with mental function
  • Difficulty moving parts of the body
  • Changes in sensation over parts of the body
  • Seizures

How are brain tumours diagnosed?

 

As with other headaches, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They will then examine you to check your neurological function. 

 

If the history and examination suggest that you may have a tumour, the doctor will organise a scan of your brain. For headaches, the type of scan that is most commonly done first is called a CT scan.

 

If anything suspicious is seen on the scan, the doctor may organise a biopsy. During the biopsy, your doctor will take a small sample of tissue from the tumour. This sample can then be analysed to determine whether the tumour is cancerous or non-cancerous, and what specific type of tumour it is.

 

How are brain tumours treated?

 

People with brain tumours will need to be assessed by specialist cancer doctors. These doctors will take into account the type of tumour, where it is, and many other factors to decide the best treatment.

 

Cancerous tumours may be treated with surgical removal, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

 

Non-cancerous tumours may be treated with surgery, or in some cases left alone.

 

If you think you have a brain tumour you should contact your doctor as soon as you can. 

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Disclaimer

The information in this article is written for general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, treatment or care. It is incredibly important that you do not make decisions regarding any symptoms based on this information alone. If you are worried about any symptoms you may be having, or have any further questions about this condition, please speak to a qualified and trustworthy medical professional.

Do I need a CT scan?

One of the questions people often ask doctors about their headaches is whether they need a brain scan.

The type of brain scan that may be used is called a Computerised Tomography Scan, also known as a CT, or CAT scan. This type of scan uses multiple rotating x-rays, to build a cross-sectional picture of the body. 

CT scanners are best described as doughnut-shaped machines. 

To have a CT scan, you will be placed on a bed, and moved inside the doughnut-shaped scanner. You will not feel anything during the scan, and typically the scan will only take a few minutes.

When used on the head, CT scans will show the structure of the skull and brain, and allow doctors to see abnormalities such as bleeding in the brain or sometimes tumours.

Because CT scans use multiple x-rays, patients are exposed to a high level of radiation, much higher than the levels of a simple x-ray. For this reason, CT scans are only used in situations where the diagnosis cannot be made based on history, examination or simple blood tests.

Situations where a CT scan would be appropriate are:

  • Sometimes for a suspected brain tumour
  • Suspected bleed in the brain (such as subarachnoid haemorrhage)
  • To check whether it is safe to perform a lumbar puncture in someone with possible meningitis
Woman getting a CT scan with her doctor standing by her side.

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How do I know if my headache is serious?

Reading all the possible causes of headaches can be overwhelming. Yes, some are serious, but the majority are relatively harmless.

So when should you get medical advice? You should seek medical advice if you have so-called Red Flags. These are symptoms which can be seen in more dangerous causes of headaches.

If you have any of these red flags you should seek medical advice:

  • Headache in children aged 5 or younger
  • A new headache in people over 50 years old
  • A headache that started and became severe over a short period (less than 5 minutes)
  • Headaches that feel worse when coughing, lying down or on exertion
  • Neurological symptoms such as difficulty moving limbs, or sensation changes
  • Changes in mental function or personality
  • New deafness
  • Changes in vision
  • Jaw pain
  • Severe tenderness over scalp
  • Neck stiffness plus sensitivity to light
  • Non-blanching rash (a rash that does not disappear when you press a glass tumbler against it)
Young woman with Long COVID sitting at home on her couch nursing a headache.

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This article contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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