There are as many known causes of a headache as there are hairs on the head. There is a great deal of overlap with many of these disorders, meaning it can be very difficult to distinguish one from the other. Furthermore, there are no known diagnostic tests that can definitively determine which type of primary or secondary headache disorder you are suffering from. However, by working with a medical professional to discuss your family and personal medical history, specifically your experience with headaches to date, you can arrive at a likely cause for your recurrent headaches.
We have compiled a list of some of the most common primary and secondary headache disorders here to help you understand what differentiates each of these conditions from one another.
Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of primary headache disorders. They occur in cyclical patterns, known as cluster periods, and generally present with pain behind or surrounding the eyes. Cluster periods can last for weeks or months at a time, followed by remission periods during which you will not experience any headaches; these remission periods can last as long as a few years. Treatment is generally aimed at controlling symptoms and preventing clusters from snowballing into significant headache episodes.
Also known as migraine with aura, a classic migraine is a chronic headache disorder that occurs immediately following a sensory disturbance known as an aura. These auditory or visual disturbances can include flashes of light, “floaters,” blind spots, blurry vision, or numbness and tingling in the face, neck, and hands. The pain associated with a classic migraine is generally described as throbbing and located on one side of the face or the other; they generally are not whole head headaches. The defining feature of a migraine headache is its accompanying nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.
Common migraines are very similar to classic migraines, save for the fact that they are not presaged by auras. This headache disorder is commonly known as migraine without aura and is the most prevalent form of migraine headache disorder affecting Americans today. The diagnosis and treatment of common migraines is the same as classic migraines.
By far the most common type of headache. Tension headaches present as a diffuse, dull, and aching pain across the forehead. It is often described as a tight band of pressure across the forehead. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of tension headaches, their cause is not very well understood and they can be triggered by causes ranging from stress to bad weather.
Headaches caused by sustained, strenuous exercise. They can be triggered by any physical activity, whether aerobic like running and cycling, anaerobic like weightlifting. Exercise headaches can be either primary or secondary headache disorders, depending on whether they’re truly linked to exercise alone or exercise is exacerbating a more serious underlying condition.
Sinus headaches are a very common secondary headache disorder and are caused by acute sinusitis. As the sinuses swell with inflammation, pressure builds in the sinus cavity, triggering a headache. They are treated by managing the underlying sinusitis with antibiotics or steroids.
A brain aneurysm is a life-threatening condition wherein one or more of the brain’s blood vessels bulges or balloons, weakening the vessel walls. If undiagnosed and untreated, an aneurysm can burst, causing a bleed on the brain that triggers an acute, severe headache. This is a medical emergency and needs to be treated as soon as possible to prevent brain death.
A benign or malignant tumor in the brain or surrounding anatomy can cause headaches. There are a range of tumors that can trigger headaches, so it is critically important to seek medical attention if you experience sudden, intense headaches, or even recurrent mild headaches that you’ve never experienced before.
High blood pressure occurs when the force applied to the artery walls by blood as it moves through the cardiovascular system is so great that it causes damage to the delicate vessels of this critical system. Once the blood pressure has reached a severe or life-threatening level, it is common to experience severe headaches, along with shortness of breath and nosebleeds. You should seek medical attention immediately if you experience sudden, intense headaches–or even mild ones with no history of them–as these headaches could be a symptom of a much more serious condition.
External Compression Headache
Headaches caused by headgear that applies constant pressure to the head or scalp. This secondary headache disorder is sometimes referred to as “helmet headache” or “swimmers headache” as they frequently hit swimmers who wear a cap and goggles for recreation and workers who wear helmets as a requirement of their job.
Brief, stabbing headaches that strike when you eat or drink something very cold too quickly. Common offenders include ice cream cones, slushies, and popsicles. Formally known as a cold stimulus headache, these are not life-threatening and will abate almost as soon as they develop.
Medication Overuse Headache
Medication headaches are the “Catch-22” of migraine management. Commonly referred to as rebound headaches, they occur as a result of long-term use of headache medication. While these medications can provide temporary relief from headaches, they can also trigger medication overuse headaches if taken more than once or twice a week. Therefore, it is critically important for individuals who suffer from chronic headaches to rotate therapies so as to not overdo any one of their medications.
Spinal headaches are a common side effect of lumbar punctures, a medical procedure used to extract cerebrospinal fluid for laboratory testing. During a lumbar puncture, a long needle is used to pierce the tough membrane surrounding the spinal cord to extract cerebrospinal fluid. If the puncture site does not heal correctly, cerebrospinal fluid can leak out and cause a spinal headache. If this happens, the physician who performed your spinal tap will likely use a blood patch to seal the puncture wound and prevent any further loss of cerebrospinal fluid.