This information is intended as a general introduction to the most common types of headache experienced by adults

human brain headacheWhat is headache?

Headache is an almost universal experience; most of us have some kind of headache at some time in our lives. The classification system of headaches used by the medical profession is one of the longest in medicine, with many types and causes.

Types of headache

The International Headache Society has two broad categories for headache disorders:

  • The first is based on symptoms (called primary headache disorders) and includes migraine, tension-type headache and cluster headaches.
  • The second is based on their causes (called secondary headache disorders). This would include headaches associated with a head injury, stroke, substance misuse and/or their withdrawal (including alcohol), infection, disorders of the neck, eyes, nose, sinuses or teeth.

If you experience recurring (regular) headaches it is helpful to understand the type of headache which you have in order to manage your condition effectively.

How is a headache different from a migraine?

There is a difference between a headache and a migraine headache. Headaches are not usually accompanied by other symptoms associated with migraine. However, it is quite likely that if you have migraine you will also experience other headaches.

  • Headache

Headaches can vary greatly in their duration, cause and severity. A hangover headache, for example goes within a few hours and headaches associated with an infectious illness improve when the illness is over.

It is really important to identify the type of headache you have so you can get the right sort of treatment and advice. A headache can be the result of a whole variety of factors such as head injuries, infections and other medical conditions.

  • Migraine

In general terms, migraine attacks are experienced as a headache of at least moderate severity usually on one side of the head and occurring with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and noise (though some people experience migraine without headache). The headache is usually made worse by physical activity. Migraine attacks usually last from 4 to 72 hours and in most cases there is complete freedom from symptoms between attacks. Certain factors are involved in triggering an attack in those predisposed to migraine. These are usually called trigger factors and can include lifestyle, and hormonal changes.

The importance of a diagnosis

If you get regular headaches, it is important to see your GP and get a proper diagnosis. Diagnosis will depend upon your doctor taking a medical history, possibly referring you for tests and narrowing down the range of possible causes for your headaches. The correct diagnosis of a headache can help you to manage your headaches and if necessary embark on a suitable form of treatment.

Keeping a record can be very helpful in assisting your doctor to have a clear picture of your headaches. A headache diary can be especially important if you experience medication-overuse headaches. By being able to distinguish between the types of headaches the right treatment can be selected.