Headache Overview

Headache is a term used to describe aching or pain that occurs in one or more areas of the head, face, mouth or neck. Headaches can be chronic, recurrent or occasional. Headache pain can be mild or severe enough to disrupt daily activities. Headaches involve the network of nerve fibers in the tissues, muscles and blood vessels located in the head and at the base of the skull.

Types of Headaches

Primary headache accounts for about 90 percent of all headaches. There are three types of primary headache: tension headache, cluster headache, and migraine.

Tension headache is the most common type of primary headache. Episodes usually begin in middle age and are often associated with the stresses, anxiety, and depression that can develop during these years.

Cluster headaches occur daily over a period of weeks, sometimes months, and often cause severe pain. They may disappear and then recur during the same season in the following year.

Secondary headache is associated with an underlying condition such as cerebrovascular disease, head trauma, infection, tumor and metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, thyroid disease).

Head pain also can result from syndromes involving the eyes, ears, neck, teeth or sinuses. In these cases, the underlying condition must be diagnosed and treated. Also, certain types of medication produce headache as a side effect.

Severe, sudden, and debilitating secondary headache that develops after a blow to the head, that interferes with normal activity, or that accompanies other symptoms (e.g., convulsions, disorientation, dizziness, loss of consciousness, pain in the eye or ear, fever) should be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible.

Incidence and Prevalence of Headache

In the United States, over 45 million people—including the more than 33 million with conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease—experience chronic, recurring headaches. Of these, 28 million people suffer migraine headaches every year.

Approximately 75 to 90 percent of all persons who experience chronic or frequent headaches suffer from tension headache. Tension headache is more prevalent among women than men. Cluster headaches primarily affect men between the ages of 20 and 40.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Dec 2001

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015