Headaches may be common, but they can also be debilitating. A headache is pain that occurs in any area of the head. For some people, headaches may be rare and only occur with another health condition, such as when you have a cold. For others, headaches can be a chronic pain condition that affects your quality of life.
The University of Kansas Health System specializes in delivering the correct diagnosis and treatment for all types of headaches, including migraines. As part of an academic medical center, we can connect you with ongoing research and clinical trials for therapeutic discoveries that aren’t available through other providers.
What are headaches?
Headaches are a type of pain that can be located anywhere in the head. Headaches can occur on only one side of the head or on both sides. Headache pain can range from mild to severe, and can feel sharp or dull. Some types of headaches come and go while others can last for hours, days or even longer.
There are many reasons you can get a headache, and there are also many different types of headaches you can experience. Headaches are considered chronic if they occur more than 15 days per month.
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Types of headaches
Headaches are classified as primary or secondary:
- A primary headache is when the headache is a health concern in its own right rather than a symptom of an underlying issue.
- A secondary headache occurs as the result of a different health condition. For example, someone with severe allergies may also get frequent sinus headaches due to their allergy symptoms.
Although there are hundreds of different headache types and subtypes, there are 4 types that most commonly cause people to call their doctor:
Cluster headaches are rare yet very painful, alternating between symptoms that can last weeks or months and remission periods in between attacks. Cluster headache pain usually occurs on one side of the head only or around one eye.
Migraines cause severe pain as well as nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can last a few hours to a few days.
Sinus headaches are characterized by pain and pressure behind the cheekbones and forehead. Sinus headaches are secondary headaches that are caused by inflammation or infection in the sinuses.
Tension headaches cause a feeling of tightness or pressure around the head. They can occur in episodes, or they can be chronic.
Headache symptoms and risks
Headache symptoms will vary depending on the type of headache you have, but can include:
- A feeling of pressure around the head
- Headache pain that’s accompanied by nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light and sound
- Pain behind or around the eye
- Pain in the head that worsens with activity
- Pain on one side of the head only
- Pain that comes and goes in cycles
- Sinus pain that worsens with sudden head movements
The risk factors and potential triggers for getting a headache also vary by headache type:
- Family history of the same type of headache
- Food sensitivities
- Grinding your teeth
- Head injury or trauma
- Hormone levels
- Muscle tension or poor posture
Headache diagnosis and screening
Typically, your doctor can diagnose your headache based on your medical history and a physical exam. However, he or she may recommend additional tests to rule out or confirm whether any underlying health concerns could be contributing to your headache symptoms:
Different treatments can bring relief of headache symptoms, depending on the type of headache:
- Avoiding headache triggers (such as certain foods or irregular sleep patterns)
- Hot or cold compresses applied to the head or neck
- Over-the-counter headache relief medications
- Prescription headache medications
- Resting quietly in a dark room
- Stress reduction practices