Authored by Revere Health

What is a Headache and What is it Telling You?

December 1, 2016 | Neurology

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A headache might be the most common medical condition in the world, but many people don’t understand how headaches work or what they mean. Plenty of people brush them off as a minor inconvenience, and a lot of the time that’s all they are – but every once in awhile, they can be signs of bigger issues.

Many people suffer from regular headaches as part of their daily lives, and in the worst cases, these can be painful and life-altering. Let’s lay out some of the basics of headaches, and what they may or may not be telling us.

Headache Causes

Headaches have several different causes, but they’re broken up into two broad categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches.

Primary Headaches:

Primary headaches have to do with issues inside the head and not with issues anywhere else in the body. Problems in the brain, toxins in the environment or certain genetic traits can all cause primary headaches, but their symptoms are usually limited to the head alone.

In some cases, daily lifestyle choices can cause primary headaches. A few common factors here include:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Stress
  • Diet, especially one high in processed foods
  • Issues with sleep or posture

Secondary Headaches:

Secondary headaches cover headaches which can signal a more serious issue somewhere else in the body. There are dozens of conditions which might lead to pain in the head that our brain recognizes as a headache, and they can cause pain levels ranging from mild to severe.

If you begin experiencing headaches on a more regular basis than normal, it’s possible they’re secondary headaches that signal a problem. If pain doesn’t go away, see a doctor about pain relief and a checkup to find out what other issues might be going on.

Types of Headaches

There are over 150 kinds of headaches, but most are rare. A few types are generally more common including:

  • Tension headaches: The most frequent kind of headaches for adults, these are also called stress headaches or chronic daily headaches. Pain is usually mild, and can be random.
  • Cluster headaches: Much less common than tension headaches but also much more painful, cluster headaches are often felt behind the eyes. They’re named for the way they show up in clusters for a few weeks at a time, then disappear completely for months or even years before coming back without warning.
  • Sinus headaches: Caused by aggravated sinuses, sinus headaches lead to many of the same symptoms as a cold: running nose, fever, head pressure and pain in the cheeks or nose area.
  • Migraines: Severe headaches that last anywhere from hours to a few days and happen a few times per month. People with migraines can also become nauseous and lose their appetite, or become sensitive to light and loud noises. Both children and adults can get migraines.
  • Acute headaches: Sudden headaches in children that go away quickly and usually are signs of a sinus infection.
  • Traction headaches: Also known as chronic progressive headaches, traction headaches get worse and more common over time, and can signal a brain or skull disorder.


In many cases, your doctor can diagnose headaches simply by talking to you about your symptoms and giving you a basic physical exam. Try to be as accurate as you can when describing your situation to your doctor, as the details might be important for deciding how to treat your headaches. In some situations, your doctor might order a CT scan or an MRI to see more.

Most of the time, headache symptoms are manageable enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment in advance. If certain extreme symptoms are present, though, call 911 or go to the emergency room.


Treatment for headaches depend on many individual factors, and some people don’t need long term treatment. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe medication, or recommend a therapist for stress-related cases. The causes of headaches aren’t always clear right away, so it may take a bit of time for you and your doctor to find the perfect treatment plan.


Revere Health Neurology specialists treat patients with a variety of neurological disorders.




The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.