In Physical & Mental Health

Overview: What Causes Headaches?

According to, the head is one of the most common areas where individuals experience pain. While many different types of pain exist, headaches are probably the most common.

A headache is pain that occurs in the head or upper neck. Since the brain has no nerves that cause pain, this pain can come from the structure and tissues that surround the brain. The pain can vary. It may be an intense, sharp, mild, constant, throbbing, or a dull ache. In the UK alone, the NHS estimates that 10 million people deal with headaches. While they are a common complaint, they are usually easy to treat. Here’s a closer look at common types of headaches, what causes them, how to get rid of a headache, and information on when you need to see a doctor.

Types of Headaches

Before looking closely at what causes a headache, it’s important to understand its different types: Primary and Secondary Headaches

Primary Headaches

These do not occur because of an underlying disease. They usually occur due to the muscles in the neck or head, the blood vessels or nerves in the head, or chemical activity taking place inside the brain. According to, primary headaches account for 90% of reported ones. The common types include:

1. Tension Headaches

These are the most common type. estimates that 80-90% of individuals will deal with a tension headache at some point in their life. What causes tension headaches? The exact cause is not known. However, multiple factors play a role in the development of a tension headache, such as stress, eye strain, muscle tension, lack of sleep, or skipping meals.

2. Migraines

Approximately 16-17% of individuals deal with migraines, and these headaches are more debilitating than most others. Migraines usually result in a very intense pulsing or throbbing in one part of the head, and the pain is often accompanied by sensitivity to sound and light, vomiting, and nausea. Hormonal changes, stress, certain foods, changes in sleep patterns, medications, and sensory stimuli may cause migraines.

3. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are very rare, and they usually occur in a cluster or cyclical pattern. They include extremely intense pain that occurs on one side of the head or around one eye. Frequent attacks, called cluster periods, can last weeks or months. Currently, experts are unaware of the exact cause, and they are usually not associated with any triggers

Secondary Headaches

According to the Mayo Clinic, secondary headaches occur as a symptom of another disease that may be activating the nerves within the head. They might be spinal, rebound, thunderclap, or sinus headaches. They could also be acute, hormone or inflammatory headaches.

What Causes Headaches?

The cause of a headache can vary greatly, depending on its specific type. Here’s a look at some of the possible causes.

Tension Headaches

In the past, researchers believed that muscle contracts in the scalp, neck, and face caused them. These often result from increased tension or stress. However, today experts believe that individuals who get tension headaches have a heightened sensitivity to stress and pain. Stress is still considered a common trigger, even though it may not be the cause.


Doctors believe that environmental factors and genetics play a big role in migraines. It’s also thought that migraines may be caused by changes in the way the brainstem interacts with the trigeminal nerve. Imbalances in certain brain chemicals may also cause migraines. Studies do show that 85% of migraine sufferers report certain triggers.

Cluster Headaches

Individuals who experience cluster headaches may wonder what causes them everyday. Unfortunately, no one is quite sure why they occur, although it is thought that hypothalamus abnormalities may contribute to this problem.

Causes of Secondary Headaches

These may include:

  • Blood clots
  • Acute sinusitis
  • Glaucoma
  • Meningitis
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Dehydration
  • Ear infection
  • Influenza
  • Dental problems
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Panic attacks
  • Medications
  • Hangovers
  • Encephalitis

How to Get Rid of Headaches

Figuring out how to get rid of a headache can be difficult. Treatments and alternative therapies differ, depending on the type of headache. A variety of treatment options are available.

Tension Headache Treatments

  • Ibuprofen
  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Massage
  • Relaxation training
  • Biofeedback
  • Meditation
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

Migraine Headache Treatments

  • OTC medications (such as Excedrin Migraine)
  • Rest in a dark, quiet room
  • Reduced intake of caffeine
  • Cold or hot compresses to the neck and/or head
  • Massage
  • Prescription medications (such as Relpax or Imitrex)

Cluster Headache Treatments

  •  Injectable medications for fast relief (such as Dosepro, Sumavel, or Imitrex)
  • 100% oxygen inhalation
  • Preventive medications
  • Prescription triptan nasal sprays (such as Imitrex or Zomig)

Home Remedies

In some cases, it’s possible to treat a headache at home without medication. The following home remedies may provide headache relief without the use of medication:

  • WebMD recommends applying ice packs to the area of your head that is painful. You can apply ice to the back of the neck, the temples, or the forehead.
  • Try taking a hot bath or a shower.
  • Gently apply rotating pressure to the area of the head that is painful. Maintain the pressure for 7-15 seconds. You can repeat this treatment as needed.
  • Try massaging your back and neck or have someone else massage the back and neck for you.
  • Lie down in a dark, quiet room. Close your eyes and focus on releasing the tension in your shoulders, back, and neck.
  • Try keeping a headache diary. Write down what you were doing and the foods you consumed before it occurred. Keeping a headache diary may help you figure out what triggers your headaches.
  • Avoid oversleeping. While getting enough sleep can help prevent getting a headache, too much sleep can cause it.

When Should You See a Doctor?

In some cases, having a headache may be symptoms of serious medical conditions. It’s not always possible to figure out the cause, so it may be a good idea to see a physician. Make sure you see your doctor if you begin dealing with a headache that:

  • Keeps you from participating in normal life activities, such as sleeping or working.
  • Starts happening more frequently.
  • Gets worse or does not improve when you use OTC or prescription medications.
  • Seems to be more painful than usual.

In some cases, a headache may be a sign that you are dealing with a serious medical problem that needs to be taken care of quickly, such as encephalitis, stroke, or meningitis. If you ever have an extremely painful headache suddenly, Mayo Clinic recommends that you go to your local Emergency Room for immediate care. You also should seek emergency care if you experience a headache that is accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty seeing.
  • Problems walking.
  • Weakness, paralysis, or numbness on one side of the body.
  • Fainting.
  • Confusion.
  • Difficulty speaking.
  • Extremely high fever.
  • Vomiting or nausea.

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