There are 147 possible causes of headache

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Seven out of 10 people in the U.S. have at least one headache per year, according to the American College of Physicians (ACP). And it is estimated that 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. Headaches are an important cause of days missed from work, costing billions of dollars in lost productivity annually. (ACP)

Most headaches are not life threatening, and can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.

Types of Headaches

The three types of headaches are: tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common and they occur most frequently in women over the age of 20. A tightening of muscles in the neck and scalp causes them. Poor posture and stress are contributing factors. Tension headaches tend to be recurrent and last from several minutes to several days.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a type of non-throbbing vascular headache. The pain is described as severe, burning and and penetrating and the headaches can last for long periods of time, known as the cluster period. The cluster period can be as long as six weeks at a time. The headaches occur every day and often more than once a day. Symptoms occur on one side of the head, behind the eye, and can be associated with tearing. It is estimated that 1 million Americans have cluster headaches. Men are most often affected.


Migraines are considered a neurological disease caused by the activity of nerve pathways and brain chemicals. They are a type of throbbing vascular headache that typically involves one half of the head (the word “migraine” is derived from the Greek word for “half-head”). This type of headache is often the most severe and complex.

Incidence and Types of Migraines

The Migraine Research Foundation (MRF) reports that nearly one out of every four households in the United States has a migraine sufferer. They are one of the top 20 most disabling diseases in the world. (MRF)

Migraines have a genetic tendency: having a family member with migraines increases your risk. In adults, they occur more frequently in women (18 percent) than in men (six percent). Prior to puberty, however, migraines are more common in boys than in girls. (MRF)

There are two basic types of migraine headaches: with aura and without auras. Auras are types of visual disturbances of bright spots, flashing lights, zig-zagging lines, or temporary loss of vision. These visual disturbances occur about 30 minutes before the headache and can last for 15 minutes. However, 80 percent of people with migraines do not have auras.

Another kind of migraine is hemiplegic migraines. They are migraine headaches accompanied by stroke-like symptoms. Speech can be slurred, and there can be numbness and weakness of the face, arm, or leg. Hemiplegic migraines can resolve without any permanent deficits. Women with migraines who take birth control pills have an increased risk of hemiplegic migraines and strokes.

Occurrence of Migraines

Migraines have three phases: prodrome, peak headache, and postdrome. Prodrome is the period leading up to the migraine. This is the time when auras occur. The prodrome phase may affect concentration, mood, appetite and frequent yawning may occur. Postdrome is the 24-hour period after the migraine. During this time, drowsiness can occur, and mood can vary from depression to feelings of joyfulness.

Migraine Triggers

Migraines can occur before, during, or after menstrual periods. The most common food trigger for migraines is alcohol. There is uncertainty, however, as to whether chocolate is a migraine trigger. Keeping a personal food diary is a good way to track what foods may be associated with your migraines. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are known to increase frequency of migraines in adults and children. Maintaining optimal weight and getting proper amounts of exercise are two lifestyle changes that can help to decrease migraines.

Dangerous Headache Symptoms

Most headaches are not signals of a life threatening illness. You should contact your doctor immediately if headache occurs after head trauma, or is associated with drowsiness, fever, vomiting, facial numbness, slurred speech, or weakness in an arm or a leg, convulsions or confusion. Seek medical attention if you have sudden onset of a severe headache, or neck stiffness. Pressure around the eyes with a yellowish-green nasal discharge and sore throat also should be evaluated by your physician.

Evaluation of Headaches

A headache can be a symptom of many different disease processes. The cause of a headache is determined by a complete history and physical exam. This examination should include a look at the head and neck and include a complete neurological evaluation. Medication history is important, because the sudden absence of medication and foods can cause rebound headaches. For example, heavy coffee drinkers who suddenly stop drinking coffee can experience headaches.

Tests that can evaluate headaches include:

  • CBC (complete blood count to look for infection)
  • sinus X-rays (if sinusitis is suspected)
  • skull X-rays (if trauma is present)
  • computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the head (in cases where stroke, trauma, or blood clots on the brain are suspected)

Treatment of Headaches

Treatment varies according to the cause. Most tension headaches are successfully treated with over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil). Stress reduction, biofeedback, elimination of food triggers, exercise, and medication are common treatments for migraines and other vascular headaches.

Preventive treatment is used when headaches occur three or more times per month. Sumatriptan, a drug that acts to decrease the vascular inflammation in migraines, is commonly used for the control of migraine headaches. Other medications that can be used to prevent migraines are:

  • beta blockers (propranolol, atenolol)
  • verapamil (calcium channel blocker)
  • methysergide maleate (helps to reduce blood vessel constriction)
  • amitriptyline (antidepressant)
  • valproic acid (anti-seizure medication)

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Possible Causes - Listed in order from the most common to the least.


Tension Headaches

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. This type of headache can cause mild or moderate pain in the head, neck, and behind the eyes. Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight ban...

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Sinus Infections (Sinusitis)

A sinus infection causes the sinuses and nasal passages to become inflamed. Facial swelling is a common sign of this type of infection.

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Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches that occur in cycles. They start suddenly and occur on one side of the head. Additional symptoms include face and eye redness and nausea.

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Migraine with Aura

Migraine is a disorder characterized by repeated attacks of severe headache. Symptoms include throbbing or pulsating pain, usually on only one side of the head, and can last between four hours and three days.

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Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis, also known as "hay fever," refers to symptoms that occur after exposure to a certain allergen, such as pollen. Swollen eyes or face may accompany allergic rhinitis.

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Cold and Flu Overview

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Common Cold Overview

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Whiplash occurs when a person's neck is forced backward and then forward very suddenly. Whiplash results when the soft tissues–the muscles and ligaments–of your neck are extended beyond their typical range of motion.

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Teeth Grinding

Bruxism is the technical name for teeth grinding or jaw clenching. Learn why people grind their teeth (stress, misaligned teeth, posture) and explore information about the symptoms and treatments for bruxism now.

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, worry uncontrollably about common occurrences and situations. The condition may also be called chronic anxiety neurosis.GAD is different than normal feeling...

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Swine Flu

Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, made headlines in 2009 when it was declared a pandemic (Dandagi & Byahatti, 2011). Pandemics are contagious diseases affecting people throughout the world or on multipl...

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Mini Stroke (Transient Ischemic Attack)

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

During a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a mini stroke, blood stops flowing to the brain for a short period of time. However, a mini stroke doesn't kill brain cells like a stroke does. A mini strok...

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What is anxiety? Anxiety often manifests itself as an apprehension about daily life. Learn the basics with this overview of the types of anxiety disorders.

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Allergies Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An allergy is the immune system's response to a foreign substance that is not typically harmful to your body. These foreign substances-such as certain foods, pollen, or pet dander-are called allergens. They elicit ...

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Depression Overview

Depression is a mood disorder. Learn about its causes, symptoms & treatments, and discover strategies for preventing depression. Continue reading!

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Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Also known as hypoglycemia, low blood sugar can be a dangerous condition. People often complain about low blood sugar. However, serious hypoglycemia is rare in adults and children over the age of 10 who are no...

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Stroke Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A stroke is a medical emergency where part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. There are four major kinds of stroke: cerebral thrombosis, cerebral embolism, subarachnoid hemorrhage & intracerebral hemorrhage.

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. This is the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may occur when fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected. The most common causes of meningiti...

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Brain Aneurysm

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An aneurysm in the brain is a weak area in an artery in the brain that bulges out and fills with blood. It may also be called an intracranial (skull) aneurysm or a cerebral (brain) aneurysm. A brain aneurysm is ...

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Rhinitis is inflammation of the nasal cavity lining (inside the nose). It is often caused by allergies. It may also be caused by environmental factors such as pollution, weather changes, stress, infections, and som...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.