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Headaches basics

Headaches are one of the most commonly experienced health problems, affecting around 10 million people in the UK.

There are many different types of headache, with different symptoms and causes.

In most cases, headaches are nothing serious and either clear-up on their own or can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers.

However, if the pain is severe, keeps coming back or affects daily life, seek medical advice.

What types of headaches are there?

Headache types include:

  • Tension headaches: Also called stress headaches, tension headaches are the most common type of headaches among adults and adolescents. These muscle contraction headaches cause mild to moderate pain and come and go over a prolonged period of time.
  • Migraines: The exact causes of migraines are unknown, although they are related to blood vessel constriction and dilatation and other chemical changes in the brain. Migraine pain is moderate to severe, often described as pounding, throbbing pain. They can last from four hours to three days and usually occur one to four times per month. Migraines are associated with symptoms such as light sensitivity, noise or odours, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, and stomach upset or abdominal pain. When a child is having a migraine they often look pale, feel dizzy, have blurred vision and fever in addition to having the above listed symptoms. A small percentage of paediatric migraines include recurrent (cyclical) gastrointestinal symptoms, in which vomiting is most common. Cyclical vomiting means that the symptoms occur on a regular basis - about once a month. These types of migraines are sometimes called abdominal migraines.
  • Mixed headache syndrome: Also called transformed migraines, this is a combination of migraine and tension headaches. Both adults and children experience this type of headache.
  • Cluster headaches: The least common, although the most severe, type of primary headache, the pain of a cluster headache is intense and may be described as having a burning or piercing quality that is throbbing or constant. The pain is so severe that most cluster headache sufferers cannot sit still and will often pace during an attack. The pain is located behind one eye or in the eye region, without changing sides. The term "cluster headache" refers to headaches that have a characteristic grouping of attacks. Cluster headaches occur one to three times per day during a cluster period, which may last two weeks to three months. The headaches may disappear completely (go into "remission") for months or years, only to recur.
  • Sinus headaches: Sinus headaches are associated with a deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead or bridge of the nose. The pain usually intensifies with sudden head movement or straining and usually occurs with other sinus symptoms such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the ears, fever and facial swelling.
  • Acute headaches: Seen in children, these are headaches that occur suddenly and for the first time and have symptoms that subside after a relatively short period of time. Acute headaches most commonly result in a visit to a doctor and/or accident and emergency department. If there are no neurological signs or symptoms, the most common cause for acute headaches in children and adolescents is a respiratory or sinus infection.
  • Hormone headaches: Headaches in women are often associated with changing hormone levels that occur during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. Chemically induced hormone changes such as with birth control pills also trigger headaches in some women.
  • Chronic progressive headaches: Also called traction or inflammatory headaches, chronic progressive headaches get worse and happen more often over time. These are the least common type of headache, accounting for less than 5% of all headaches in adults and less than 2% of all headaches in children. Chronic progressive headaches may be the result of an illness or disorder of the brain or skull.
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