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According to a 2018 study, migraines and severe headaches affect about 1 in 6 Americans every three months. This rate has been stable for almost two decades. Headaches affect women of childbearing age more than other groups.

If you’re suffering from ongoing headaches then you want answers and effective treatments. But how can you tell the difference between a regular headache or migraine and something more serious?

We’ve created a handy headache guide to help. Read on to learn about the most common headache causes and when to seek urgent help.

What Is a Headache?

A headache refers to any pain in the head, face or neck. They have a wide range of causes, sometimes lasting just a few hours and in other cases becoming chronic conditions.

There are two main types – primary and secondary.

Primary headaches are not caused by other diseases. The pain-sensitive structures in the head become activated and cause pain. This group of headaches includes migraines and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches are a symptom of another disease or condition that activates the nerves in your brain that sense pain. There are many causes of this type of headache and they vary in severity from person to person.

What Causes Headaches?

The causes of primary headaches are not always well understood. Headache pain is the result of signals from the brain, blood vessels and the nerves surrounding the brain. A trigger causes changes to the muscles and nerves, which send pain signals to the brain.

Migraines appear to be caused by unstable nerve cells reacting to triggers. This causes chemical changes in the brain and often results in serious pain, which stops people from getting on with daily life.

Primary headaches may seem to come out of nowhere. But the following triggers can cause headaches in some people:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Certain medications
  • Muscle strain in the eyes, neck, and back
  • Certain types of lighting
  • Noise

Most types of headaches can be diagnosed during a physical with your doctor. They’ll talk to you about your symptoms, medical history and family medical history.

Brains affected by severe headaches often look normal on CT scans, EEGs, and MRIs. But your doctor may order one of these tests as they can rule out more serious underlying conditions.

Headaches can be broken down into further categories and treatment varies depending on the type you have.

Types of Headaches

There are hundreds of types of headaches that cause a range of symptoms. The most common types are tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines.

Tension Headaches

These headaches usually come on gradually. The pain is dull and moderate but not severe.

You experience pain in both sides of the head, causing the feeling that your head is in a vise. You may also get pain in the back of the head and in the neck.

They are usually caused by stress or anxiety. As tension builds in your body, the muscles in your neck and scalp start to contract. For example, they may build during a stressful day at work or if you’re having relationship issues.


There are many types of migraines, broadly divided into without aura and with aura. Most sufferers get episodic migraines, meaning they occur from time to time, up to 7 days each month.

Chronic migraines affect people for more than 15 days a month for more than three months. Most types of migraines cause severe pain, but they affect individuals differently. Some experience nausea, vomiting, and are sensitive to light and sound.

Although they can be debilitating, they are not usually the result of a serious condition. But you should call 911 if:

  • The migraine is much more severe than usual
  • You have a fever or a stiff neck
  • Your vision changes or you can’t see
  • You’ve injured your head
  • You are confused, weak, or paralyzed

Migraines can last anywhere from several hours to many days. Medication can help to make the symptoms more bearable.

Cluster Headaches

These headaches get their name from appearing in clusters or a patch of having several headaches in a row. They usually cause pain on one side of the head, often behind one of your eyes. They can also cause your eyes to become red and watery.

When Is a Headache a Major Concern?

Most headaches are not serious. However, there are some warning signs that you should not ignore.

  • Major changes in the pattern of your headaches
  • Unusually bad headache
  • Headache pain increases when you move or cough
  • Changes in personality
  • Mental function changes with headaches
  • Headaches accompanied by a fever over 102°F
  • Stiff neck, confusion, or memory issues
  • Headaches with hallucinations, changes to speech, weakness, or seizures
  • Headaches after banging your head
  • Steadily getting more severe
  • Headaches that start suddenly and even wake you up

This is not an exhaustive list. If you are concerned about your headache or that of a loved one, seek prompt medical attention. This can usually rule out serious conditions and the doctor can prescribe medication to ease the discomfort.

Rarely, headache causes include serious conditions such as brain aneurysms or brain hemorrhages. Brain aneurysms occur in approximately 30,000 Americans each year, making them a rare condition. Stroke, cancer, tumors, and meningitis can also cause severe headaches.

How to Treat a Headache

Doctors usually try treating headaches with lifestyle changes and medication.

Counteract tension headaches by trying to reduce stress in your daily life. Or include activities that provide stress relief. Over-the-counter medication can help to relieve the pain of occasional tension headaches.

Also, try to stick to a good sleep schedule.

There are specific medications that can help people who suffer from migraines. Some medications help to reduce the risk of developing migraines and others provide pain relief.

Oxygen treatment is effective for many people who suffer from cluster headaches. This involves inhaling 100% oxygen through a face mask. In many cases, it can relieve the pain within 15 minutes. Prescription medications can also provide pain relief for cluster headaches.

Get Help for Your Headaches from a Brown & Toland Doctor

Whether you get a headache now and again or live with severe headaches, it’s good to find out the cause. In some cases, lifestyle changes can help. Other types of headaches may need specific medications.

Getting to the root of the problem starts with a consultation with a Brown & Toland doctor. We have many types of doctors and medical professionals who are waiting to help you.

Call us at 800.225.5637 or search for a doctor online today.


MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: The content of this Website or Blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website or Blog.

If you think you may have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately, call your doctor, or go to the emergency room/urgent care.