Office of Women's Health

Facts About Headaches

What are the different types of headaches?

A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp or neck. Headaches are not created equal. The severity, symptoms and causes vary. The different types include tension, migraine, cluster, organic, rebound and chronic daily headaches, as well as many others. Headaches can plague anyone and can stop the strongest and bravest in their tracks. Despite the toll headaches still take on millions of people, enormous progress has been made in treating them. New medications, combined with non-drug therapies, are preventing, stopping or managing some of the toughest headaches around.

Tension headaches are often related to stress, depression or anxiety. Approximately 90 percent of all headaches are classified as tension-type headache. The pain is typically generalized all over the head. There appears to be a slightly higher incidence of this type of headache among women, because more females than males seek treatment.

There are an estimated one million cluster headache sufferers in the United States, of whom 10 percent are afflicted with chronic cluster. Cluster headaches are sharp, extremely painful headaches that tend to occur several times per day for months and then go away for a similar period of time.

Hormone (Menstrual Migraine)
Women suffer migraines three times more frequently than do men, and, menstrual migraines affect 70 percent of these women. They occur before, during or immediately after the period, or during ovulation. Menstrual migraines are primarily caused by estrogen, the female sex hormone that specifically regulates the menstrual cycle fluctuations throughout the cycle. When the levels of estrogen and progesterone change, women will be more vulnerable to headaches. Because oral contraceptives influence estrogen levels, women on birth control pills may experience more menstrual migraines.

More than just a “bad headache,” a migraine is a legitimate biological disease affecting nearly 30 million Americans; one in every four United States households has a migraine sufferer. Migraine is more common than asthma, diabetes and coronary heart disease combined.

What are some ways to treat headaches?

Most people with headaches can feel better by making lifestyle changes, learning ways to relax, and occasionally by taking medications. There are two goals when treating any type of headache: prevent future attacks and abort or relieve current pain. Prevention includes taking prescribed medications, avoiding or minimizing the causes, and learning self-help measures, such as biofeedback or relaxation exercises. If your doctor suggests medications, you should realize that they may take several weeks to become effective and they can have side effects. Thus, you must be patient and cooperate with your health care provider to find the optimal treatment.

What is a migraine?

Although the exact cause is not known, many experts consider migraine to be an inherited condition where the brain and its seritonin-controlled blood vessels are involved. These headaches can often be triggered by many factors, including stress, certain foods, glaring lights, physical exercise and changes in hormone levels. Migraine headaches usually occur on one side of the head, have a pulsating or throbbing quality, are moderate to severe in intensity and are worsened by physical activity.

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

Migraine is a characterized by throbbing head pain, which usually begins on one side of the head, although the pain may spread to both sides. These types of headaches are often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and/or sound. The combination of disabling pain and associated symptoms often prevents sufferers from performing daily activities. Symptoms, incidence and severity vary by individual.

What causes migraines and what can be done to treat them?

While there are not definite answers to the causes of migraine, health care professionals are gaining an understanding of what happens when a migraine attack is in progress. Many things may trigger a migraine. Triggers are not the same for everyone and what causes a migraine in one person may relieve it in another. Triggers may include one or more of the following categories: diet, activity, environment, emotions, medications and hormones, irregular sleep cycles and skipping or delaying meals.

Migraine can be effectively managed. With the help of a healthcare provider, patients can identify and alleviate their symptoms with an appropriate treatment regime. Medications generally fall into two categories:

  • Preventive - Taken on a daily basis, preventive medications can help reduce the number of attacks in patients who experience any disability from migraine.
  • Abortive - Abortive therapy treats the symptoms of migraine after the attack begins. Many medications available to treat an acute attack must be taken as soon as the attack occurs, otherwise they may be less effective.

Health care providers have many options available for the treatment of migraine, so if the first treatment plan is not effective, the next plan probably will be. The chances are very good that migraine attacks can eventually be greatly reduced or even eliminated entirely.

Migraine headaches are misdiagnosed as frequently as they are diagnosed correctly. They are often confused with tension-type or sinus headaches. To aid in the diagnosis, keep a headache diary and record when the headache began and how long it lasted, possible triggers, the location and character of the pain, and what you did to make it stop.