A headache is one of the more common ailments around—all of us have had them, most of us have had at least one recently, and an estimated 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. A headache is defined as pain or discomfort of the scalp or forehead, and while most headaches are caused by muscle tension, some persistent or severe headaches can have serious underlying causes and require medical attention.
There are three major types of headache. A brief overview of each type is given below.
- Tension headaches: The most common form of headaches, these cause individuals to feel like a tight band is wrapped around their head, and mild to moderate pain on both sides of the head. They may be triggered by missed meals, depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, stress or neck strain, and can last from 30 minutes to an entire week. These headaches may either be occasional or chronic, meaning they occur more than 15 days per month.
- Migraines: These headaches more three times as likely to affect women as men, and are often accompanied by nausea or vomiting or increased light or sound sensitivity. They may include pain that gets worse with routine activity. Without treatment, migraines can last between four and 72 hours.
- Cluster headaches: This rare form of headache occurs on and off for weeks or months, and is more common in men than women and smokers than nonsmokers. These headaches can begin without warning and reach full intensity within minutes, can last up to three hours and usually affect only one side of the head. They are sometimes accompanied by tearing or redness of the eye or a droopy eyelid on the affected side of the head, as well as a runny or stuffy nose.
Other types of headache include medication-overuse headache, or a headache that affects people who use pain relievers several times a month and are most severe when that medication begins to wear off; and uncommon primary or exertional headaches, which are headaches that occur as a result of exercise, sex or other activities.
While most headaches do not require medical attention, some do. These include: sudden, severe headaches accompanied by a stiff neck; headaches accompanied by fever, convulsions, or confusion or loss of consciousness; headaches following a blow to the head; recurring headaches in children; and persistent headaches in individuals who did not previously have headaches.