What are Headaches and Migraines?

A headache refers to pain in any part of your head. Primary headaches are caused by problems that affect pain-sensitive areas of your head. Common types of primary headaches include:

  • Cluster headache
  • Migraine
  • Migraine with aura
  • Tension headache

A migraine is a type of headache that causes throbbing or pulsing pain, usually on one side of the head, that is sometimes accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound.

Secondary headaches are headaches that are caused by another condition, such as a sinus infection, ear infection, dental problems, or a concussion. Secondary headaches also can be triggered by lifestyle or environmental factors, such as a tight hat or helmet, consuming alcohol, stress, or poor-quality sleep.


Symptoms

Symptoms of headaches can vary. A headache can occur on one or both sides of the head or be felt in one specific area. Some headaches may create a “squeezing” sensation. Headache pain may be sharp, throbbing, or dull. Headaches can come on slowly or suddenly, and the pain may last anywhere from minutes to days.

Symptoms of migraine may include:

  • Pain on one or both sides of your head
  • Throbbing or pulsing pain
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Some people who get migraines also experience aura symptoms before or during a migraine. Migraine aura symptoms may include:

  • Visual disturbances, such as seeing bright spots, shapes, or flashes of light
  • Loss of vision
  • Tingling in one arm or leg
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the face or on one side of your body
  • Trouble speaking
  • Hearing sounds, such as noises or music
  • Involuntary jerking or repetitive movements

Causes and Risk Factors

Headaches have many causes and can be triggered by underlying health conditions, lifestyle factors, activities, and external stimuli in your environment. Some people may carry genes that make them more likely to develop headaches.

Diagnosis

To diagnose headache or migraine, your doctor will review your medical history and evaluate your symptoms. Your doctor also may perform exams or order tests, including:

  • Neurological exams. Neurological exams will differ depending on your age, but older children and adults will be asked to answer questions and complete simple tasks to test movement, muscle condition, the function of each of the senses, and general neurological well-being.
  • Imaging tests. Your doctor may order imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans to rule out underlying health conditions.

Your doctor also may refer you to another medical specialist or order additional tests to rule out other health conditions that may be causing your headaches.


Treatment

The goal of headache and migraine treatment is to eliminate symptoms while preventing future attacks. Your doctor will help you identify headache triggers, if possible, and work with you to create a headache management plan. Treatment may include:

  • Pain-relieving medications. Pain-relieving medications can be used to stop headache symptoms after they have started.
  • Preventive medications. Preventive medications are taken regularly or as soon as symptoms begin to reduce the severity and frequency of headaches or migraines.
  • Lifestyle changes. Lifestyle modifications — such as regulating sleep routines, exercising, reducing stress, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating a balanced diet — can help control headache and migraine symptoms in some people.