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Alternative names:

Cephalalgia; pain in the head


A pain in the head from any cause. Benign headache; migraine headache, classical; migraine headache, common; tension headache; and the cluster headaches.


Although painful and annoying, the vast majority of headaches do not indicate a serious disorder. Tension headache and migraine headaches account for 90% of all headaches.
The different types of headaches are usually caused by muscle contraction (tension headaches), vascular problems (migraine headache or cluster headache), or a combination.
A headache that signals a potentially serious problem is one that: 
  • Involves sudden, violent pain 
    • It could signal an aneurysm
  • Gets worse over time and includes other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, speech changes, personality changes, etc. 
    • Although rare, it could be a brain tumor or a TIA (’mini-stroke’)
  • Includes nausea, vomiting, fever, and a stiff neck 
    • it could be a sign of meningitis

Common causes:

Tension headache is a common headache pattern that may or may not be associated with psychosocial stressors. Tension headaches are characterized by: 

  • Pain usually felt in the back of the head and neck, and usually not one-sided. 
  • Pain that lasts for weeks or months with only brief periods of relief, although it may fluctuate in severity. 
  • Attacks that begin at any time of the day. 
  • Pain that is often described as a ‘tight band,’ pressing, but rarely throbbing, and never accompanied by fever.

Migraine headaches, which are often preceded by fatigue, depression, and visual disturbance (light flash, loss of peripheral vision, etc.), are characterized by: 

  • Pain that is characteristically only on one side at a time, but may involve the entire head. 
  • Pain that is throbbing in nature and usually develops in the morning and gradually worsens after an hour or so. 
  • Attacks that may occur every few days or weeks, or not for months. Migraines often continue for hours, but rarely last longer than a day or two. 
  • Pain that may be aggravated by stress, alcohol, or certain foods such as chocolate and are frequently accompanied by nausea and vomiting and relieved by sleep. 
  • Having a family history of migraine headaches.

Cluster headaches, which are a variation of the migraine, are characterized by: 

  • Pain that occurs mostly in men, while typical migraines are more common in women. 
  • Pain that is often situated behind an eye and usually the same eye. 
  • Pain that comes on very suddenly and without warning. 
  • Pain that peaks within 5 to 10 minutes and disappears in less than an hour. 
  • Pain that is often triggered by alcohol. 
  • Pain that will awaken a person from sleep and occur several times a day for weeks and then stop.

Inflamed sinuses (acute sinusitis or chronic sinusitis) are characterized by: 

  • Pain that usually begins during or after a bad cold, particularly if there is postnasal drip. 
  • Pain that it is localized to one specific area of the face or head, and comes on very quickly. 
  • Pain that is worse in the morning before the mucus has had an opportunity to drain. 
  • Pain that it is made worse by coughing, sneezing, or sudden movements of the head. 
  • Pain that it is aggravated by alcohol, sudden temperature changes, and during cold seasons, going from a warm room out into the cold. 
  • A history of hay fever and allergies.

Temporal arteritis is characterized by: 

  • Pain that occurs mostly in people over age 50 
  • Pain that is aggravated by chewing 
  • Impaired vision 
  • Aches and pains all over the body 
  • The presence of a fever 
  • Weight loss

Other common causes include: 

  • Benign headache 
  • Common cold 
  • Fever 
  • Hangover (alcohol withdrawal) 
  • Head injury 
  • Head or neck infection NOT involving the brain (ear infection, mastoiditis, pharyngitis,or sinusitis) 
  • Influenza 
  • Medications such as indomethacin, nitrates, and vasodilators 
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) 
  • Stress 
  • Tooth abscess 
  • Withdrawal from caffeine, ergotamine, sympathomimetic drugs, or other medication 
  • Withdrawal from street drugs

Rare causes include: 

  • Cerebral aneurysm 
  • Brain tumor 
  • Stroke 
  • TIA 
  • Meningitis 
  • Encephalitis

Note: There may be other causes of headaches. This list is not all inclusive, and the causes are not presented in order of likelihood. The causes of this symptom can include unlikely diseases and medications. Furthermore, the causes may vary based on age and gender of the affected person, as well as on the specific characteristics of the symptom such as location, quality, time course, aggravating factors, relieving factors, and associated complaints. Use the Symptom Analysis option to explore the possible explanations for headaches, occurring alone or in combination with other problems.


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