A headache is any kind of pain in the head, scalp, or neck. There are many different kinds of headaches, with many different causes. Some are minor and last a few seconds or hours, while others can last days or weeks and can interfere with work or other daily activities. Some headaches may indicate immediate life-threatening problems.
Fortunately, most headaches are not a sign of a serious underlying condition and can be managed with an appropriate combination of pharmacology, environmental changes, stress management, or basic changes in diet and lifestyle.
Types of Headache
Here are some of the most common types of headache:
Tension headaches are the most prevalent type of headache. They are characterized by dull, constant (not throbbing) pain and the sensation of tightness or pressure all around the head. They do not usually interfere with normal activities. People with tension headaches often describe the pain as feeling like there is a "rubber band around my head." A tension headache can last anywhere from half an hour to several days. It is caused by tension in the muscles of the scalp, neck, or face, which may be due to stress, anxiety, depression, too much exercise, or sitting or sleeping in an uncomfortable position.
Migraine headaches are characterized by severe, throbbing or pulsating pain, often on just one side of the head, which interferes with regular activities. The exact cause of migraine is not fully understood. For a long time, the generally accepted theory was that migraine and its symptoms were caused by problems in the blood vessels of the head. Recent research, however, has shown that, while blood vessel constriction can result in pain, the cause of migraine, itself, is likely rooted in a disorder of the central nervous system.
A migraine may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting and/or sensitivity to light or sound. Many people experience auras—unusual physical sensations like seeing colors or flashes or feeling tingling in the hands or feet—a few hours or minutes before a migraine headache begins.
Cluster headaches are episodes of repeated severe headaches that last no more than a few hours each. Headaches usually come on during sleep and may occur one or more times every day for a period of weeks or months. Cluster-headache pain comes on very quickly and is most often felt as a sharp stabbing pain behind one eye. Patients may also experience tearing, a drooping eyelid, or reduced pupil size in one eye or congestion in one nostril. Cluster headaches are more common in young men than other age groups.
Also called medication-overuse headaches, rebound headaches are caused by taking headache medication too often. The body adapts to the medication, and when it wears off, headache symptoms return. Different medications have different limits on how often they may be taken.
Sinus headaches are pain in the face and the front of the head caused by inflammation in the sinus passages due to infection. Pain is usually worst upon waking and when leaning forward.
Ice Cream Headaches
Ice cream headaches are caused by eating cold or frozen foods too quickly. This causes sharp pain in the forehead that goes away after a few minutes. Drinking warm liquids can quickly relieve symptoms. Ice cream headaches may also be a sign of problems with the teeth.
Headache as a Symptom
Headaches can also be a symptom of other serious conditions, including:
- brain tumor or aneurysm
It is uncommon for children to get headaches, so it is important to take any child's complaint of ‘headache' seriously. It is important not to delay seeing your physician if you have a headache you would characterize as "the worst headache in your life" or if you have recurrent headaches. These may be a sign of a serious underlying problem. Chronic, stable headaches can be addressed when it is convenient for you to see a doctor; new onset headaches or any headache associated with vomiting, neck stiffness, slurred speech, or weakness should be addressed immediately.