Close-up of a woman suffering from a headache



Healthgrades Editorial Staff

What is a headache?

A headache is any type of discomfort or pain around the head, face, or neck area. In many cases, your head hurts because the nerves, muscles, or blood vessels throughout your face, scalp, or brain are irritated, inflamed, or not functioning properly.

The American College of Physicians reports that seven out of 10 people suffer from at least one headache a year, and 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches.

Headaches vary greatly in regard to the severity and location of the pain and the duration. Because of the range of possible causes of headaches, a correct diagnosis is important.

Most headaches are not a cause for concern, but headaches that are due to a serious underlying disorder require urgent medical attention. Pay close attention to any headache that appears different than usual or in its pattern of symptoms. If you develop this type of headache, an excruciating headache, or a headache that does not respond to medication, seek immediate medical attention.

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Certain types of headache and headaches associated with specific symptoms, such as a severe or sudden headache associated with a stiff neck, fever, convulsions, confusion, or pain in the eye or ear, may warrant urgent medical attention. A persistent headache in a person with no previous history of headaches and recurring headaches in children are also cause for concern.

A severe headache that wakes you in the night or a severe headache on waking up in the morning can also indicate a severe brain condition that may have occurred during sleep. If there is any doubt, seek professional medical help as soon as possible.

What are the different types of headaches?

Headaches can range from the occasional tension headache to migraine with auras. While there are many types of headaches, the three main types include:

  • Tension - usually pain on both sides of the head, often due to muscle tension and stress; they are often short lived but may recur intermittently over time.

  • Migraine - intense and throbbing, usually affecting one area of the head. May last several hours to days and may be preceded by abnormal visual disturbances (aura). Migraine affects three times more women than men.

  • Cluster - usually occur several times a day with pain on one side of the head behind the eye. Cluster headaches affect men more often than women.

Although most headaches are harmless and last only a few hours, a headache can be a symptom of a serious disease, disorder or condition affecting the neck, eyes, brain, jaw or teeth. Headache can be a symptom of numerous conditions ranging from the common cold, flu, and stress to severe conditions such as meningitis, stroke or a brain tumor.