What is it that causes headache?

What is it that causes headache?

Headaches are among the most common medical complaints; they are felt by most people at some point in their lives. They may affect anyone whatever their age, race and gender.

World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, in any given year, nearly half of all adults worldwide would experience headache.

Headache can be a sign of stress or emotional distress, or may result from a medical condition such as migraine or high blood pressure, anxiety, or depression. That may lead to other problems. For example, people with chronic migraine headaches can find it difficult to regularly attend work or school.


A lady having headache
Headache is a common complaint around the world.

A headache can occur in any part of the brain, on either side of the head, or in just one location.

There are different ways to define the headaches.

The International Headache Society (IHS) categorizes headaches as primary if they are not caused by another condition or secondary cause.

Primary headache

Primary headaches are stand-alone illnesses directly caused by overactivity or issues with pain-sensitive structures in the brain.

This protects the head and neck, blood vessels, muscles, and nerves. This can also be due to changes in the brain’s chemical function.

Migraines, headaches of the cluster, and headaches of stress are typical primary headaches.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are symptoms that occur when a further disorder stimulates the head’s pain-sensitive nerves. In other words, the symptoms of headache may be linked to another cause.

A wide array of different factors may lead to secondary headaches.


  • alcohol-induced hangover
  • brain tumor
  • blood clots
  • bleeding in or around the brain
  • “brain freeze,” or ice-cream headaches
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • concussion
  • dehydration
  • glaucoma
  • teeth-grinding at night
  • influenza
  • overuse of pain medication, known as rebound headaches
  • panic attacks
  • stroke

Because headaches can be a symptom of a serious condition, if they become more severe, regular, or persistent, it is important to seek medical counseling.

For instance, if a headache is more severe and debilitating than previous headaches, worsens or does not improve with medication or is followed by other symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, sensory changes and neck stiffness, a doctor should be called immediately.


There are many types of headache.

Tension headaches

Eating something very cold will bring on "brain freezing."
Eating something very cold will bring on “brain freezing.”

The most common form of primary headache is the stress headaches. Such headaches usually start in the middle of the day slowly and gradually.

The person may feel:

  • as if they have a tight band around the head
  • a constant, dull ache on both sides
  • pain spread to or from the neck

Headaches of the tension types may be either episodic or chronic. Episodic attacks usually last for a few hours but can last for a few days. For a period of at least 3 months chronic headaches occur for 15 or more days a month.


A migraine headache can usually cause pulsating, throbbing pain just on one side of the head. Accompanying the aching may be:

  • blurred vision
  • light-headedness
  • nausea
  • sensory disturbances known as auras

Migraine is the second most common type of primary headache, and can affect an individual’s life significantly. Migraine is the sixth-highest cause of days lost due to disability worldwide, according to the WHO. A migraine can last between 2 and 3 days, from a few hours.

Rebound headaches

Headache rebounding or overuse of treatment results from improper use of medication to treat symptoms of headache. They are the most prevalent cause of secondary headache. They usually start early in the day, and continue all day long. They can improve with medication for pain, but worsen when it wears off its effects.

Rebound headaches can cause, in addition to the headache itself:

  • neck pain
  • restlessness
  • a feeling of nasal congestion
  • reduced sleep quality

Rebound headaches can cause a variety of symptoms, and each day, the pain can be different.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches typically last between 15 minutes and 3 hours, and unexpectedly occur once a day, up to eight times a day for weeks to months. There may be no signs of headache in between clusters and this duration of headache-free will last months to years.

Cluster headaches cause pain:

  • one-sided
  • severe
  • often described as sharp or burning
  • typically located in or around one eye

The affected area may become red and swollen, the eyelid may drop and the affected side nasal passage may become stuffy and runny.

Thunderclap headaches

These are unexpected, serious headaches that are often described as the “worst headache of my life.” In less than one minute, they reach maximum intensity and last longer than 5 minutes.

Thunderclap headache is often due to life-threatening conditions such as intracerebral hemorrhage, cerebral venous thrombosis, ruptured or unrupted aneurysms, reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RVS), meningitis, and hypophyseal apoplexy.

People who suffer such sudden, severe headaches should seek immediate medical evaluation.


Rest and pain relieving medications are the most effective ways of treating headaches.

Generic pain relief medicines are available over the counter (OTC), or doctors can prescribe preventive medicines such as tricyclic antidepressants, agonists of serotonin receptors, anti-epileptic drugs, and beta blockers.

Following the advice of the doctor is important, because overuse of pain relief medicine will lead to headache rebound. The diagnosis of rebound headaches includes the drug to reduce or avoid pain relief. In extreme cases, a brief hospital stay may be necessary to safely and effectively manage the withdrawal.

Another Alternative treatments

Acupuncture is an alternative therapy which can help to ease headaches.
Acupuncture is an alternative therapy which can help to ease headaches.

There are several alternative forms of headache treatment available but it is necessary to consult a doctor before making any major changes or beginning any alternative forms of treatment.

Other methods include:

  • acupuncture
  • cognitive behavior therapy
  • herbal and nutritional health products
  • hypnosis
  • meditation

Work has failed to provide proof that all of these strategies work.

A headache can sometimes result from a deficiency of a particular nutrient or nutrient, particularly magnesium and some B vitamins. Nutrient deficits can be due to poor food consistency, underlying issues with malabsorption or other medical conditions.

Home remedies

A number of steps can be taken to reduce the risk of headaches and to alleviate the pain if it does happen:

  • Apply a heat pack or ice pack to your head or neck, but avoid extreme temperatures.
  • Avoid stressors, where possible, and develop healthy coping strategies for unavoidable stress.
  • Eat regular meals, taking care to maintain stable blood sugar.

A hot shower may help, but exposure to hot water can cause headaches in one rare condition. Exercising regularly and having enough rest and adequate sleep helps alleviate overall health and stress.


Headaches can radiate from a central point across the head or have a quality similar to that of a vise. They can appear gradually or suddenly sharp, throbbing or dull. They can last for up to several days, from less than an hour.

To some extent the symptoms of a headache depend on what type of headache it is.

Tension Headache: There may be general, mild to moderate pain around the head that may feel like a band. We tend to have both sides of the brain affected.

Migraine headache: A intense throbbing pain typically happens in one section of the head, often in the front or side. Nausea and vomiting may occur and the person may feel particularly sensitive to light or noise.

Clusters headache : These can cause severe pain, often around one eye. They usually occur around a given time of year, likely over a span of 1 to 2 months.


Generally, a doctor will be able to diagnose a particular type of headache by identifying the condition, the type of pain and the frequency and pattern of attacks. If the origin of the headache is unclear, tests may be done to avoid more serious causes.

Other checks could include:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • brain scans, such as CT and MRI

The WHO points out that headache is often not taken seriously because it is intermittent, most headache does not lead to death, and is not contagious.

We are asking for more money to be dedicated to combat headache conditions, due to the enormous health burden we pose.


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