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CATEGORIES OF HEADACHE
Primary or benign headaches are not due to an organic underlying condition. However, these common
headaches are legitimate biological disorders, not psychological conditions. Science is rapidly progressing
to better understand the cause of primary headaches.
Approximately 78% of adults experience a tension-type headache at some point in their lives. There
appears to be a slightly higher prevalence of this type of headache among women, and more women than
men seek treatment. Tension-type headache, the most common form of headache, is a nonspecific headache, which is not
vascular or migrainous, and is not related to organic disease. The underlying cause of tension-type
headache is likely due to chemical and neuronal imbalances in the brain or muscle tightening in the back
of the neck and/or scalp. The pain is pressing or tightening, of mild to moderate intensity, and occurs on
both sides of the head. Some sufferers describe a band-like sensation around the neck and/or head
which is a "vice-like" ache located in the forehead, temples or the back of the head and/or neck. The pain
is not aggravated by routine physical activity. Rarely are there associated symptoms such as nausea or
Tension-type headache is divided into 3 categories, based on the frequency of attacks.
Episodic tension-type headache occurs less than once per month and is usual y triggered by
temporary stress, anxiety, fatigue or anger. It is what most of us consider a "stress headache." It may
disappear with the use of over-the-counter analgesics, withdrawal from the source of stress or a
relatively brief period of relaxation.
For this type of headache, over-the-counter drugs of choice are aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or
naproxen sodium. Combination products with caffeine can enhance the action of the analgesics.
Occurring 1-15 days per month, this type of headache often co-exists with migraine.
Sufferers should be cautious to avoid overusing analgesics due to the high frequency of this headache
Chronic tension-type headache occurs 15 or more days per month and evolves over time from
episodic headache. It is often a daily or continuous headache, which may have some variability in the
intensity of the pain during a 24-hour cycle. If a sufferer is taking pain medication daily or almost daily
and is receiving little or no relief from the pain, then a physician should be seen for diagnosis and
Chronic daily tension-type headache is often associated with depression or other emotional problems.
Changes in sleep patterns or insomnia, early morning or late day occurrence of headache, feelings or
guilt, weight loss, dizziness, poor concentration, ongoing fatigue and nausea commonly occur. Sufferers
usual y awaken in the morning with the headache and frequently have an accompanying sleep disorder.
One should seek professional diagnosis for proper treatment if these symptoms exist.
This type of headache should be treated preventively to avoid becoming dependent on pain-relieving
drugs. The primary drug of choice for chronic tension-type headache is amitriptyline or some of the other
tricyclic antidepressants taken daily. Antidepressant drugs have analgesic actions, which can provide
relief for headache sufferers even if the patient is not depressed. Biofeedback techniques can also be
helpful in treating tension-type headaches. For the patient with chronic tension-type headaches,
habituating analgesics must be strictly avoided.
More than just a “bad headache,” migraine pain and associated symptoms affect 29.5 mil ion Americans,
equivalent to 13% of the population, and one in every four U.S. households has a migraine sufferer.
Migraine is characterized by throbbing head pain, usual y located on one side of the head, often
accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. The combination of disabling pain and
associated symptoms often prevents sufferers from performing daily activities. Symptoms, incidence and
severity vary by individual. Attacks can last anywhere from four to 72 hours and tend to occur in three
phases: pre-headache, the headache itself, and post-headache. The pre-headache and post-headache
phases can last for hours to days with symptoms such as muscle tenderness, fatigue and mood
Less than one-third of sufferers experience what is known as "aura." They may see light flashes, blind
spots, zigzag lines, and shimmering lights or experience numbness and tingling in the arm and face prior
to the head pain and other symptoms. Aura symptoms last less than one hour and typical y resolve
before the head pain begins. Aura may occur with some, but not al attacks.
Migraine afflicts both women and men, although three times more women experience migraine. Peak
prevalence for migraine is between 20 - 45 years old for both genders. Migraine is often hereditary. Onset
can occur in childhood. If both parents have them, there is a 75 percent chance their children wil have
them; when only one parent is a migraine sufferer, there is a 50 percent chance the child wil be afflicted. If
even a distant relative has migraine headaches, a 20 percent chance exists that any offspring wil be prone
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 be cumulative – with exposure to multiple triggers
migraine may be more likely to occur. Triggers may include one or more of the fol owing categories: diet,
activity, environment, emotions, medications and hormones.
While there are no definite answers to the causes of migraine, healthcare professionals are gaining an
understanding of what happens when a migraine attack is in progress. Current theory suggests that
migraines are triggered from within the brain itself. Once an attack begins, the pain and other symptoms
of migraine arise from an inflammatory process resulting from an interaction between the trigeminal
nerve and blood vessels in the coverings of the brain. Serotonin (or 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT), a
natural y occurring chemical in the brain, has been implicated in this inflammatory process.
Pain signals are sent from the blood vessels along the trigeminal nerve into the brainstem. Here, pain
processing centers can become sensitized or overloaded by the incoming pain signals and begin to
spontaneously fire. This can result in skin sensitivity on the head/scalp. Patients may note that “my hair
hurts,” or that they have to take off glasses or jewelry during a migraine.
Once these symptoms occur, medication may not be as effective as it would be if taken earlier in the
attack. Repeated pain signaling over time may be responsible for chronic (daily) migraine.
Migraine sufferers may experience a variety of headache presentations including sinus pain, neck
tension, menstrual migraine or have aura without headache. Most migraine occurs episodical y; however,
10 mil ion Americans have chronic headache (15 or more days per month). Many of these people
experienced episodic migraine that evolved over time to chronic migraine.
Migraine can be effectively managed. With the help of a healthcare provider, patients can identify and
al eviate their symptoms with an appropriate treatment regimen. Medications general y fal into two
• Preventive -
Taken on a daily basis, preventive medications can help reduce the number of attacks in
patients who experience more than two migraines per month.
• 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
Nondrug treatments can be effective, especial y when used in conjunction with medication. Strategies
include relaxation techniques, proper sleep and diet habits, exercise, and avoidance of behaviors or
situations that may trigger an attack. Biofeedback has also been used successful y, as have acupuncture,
massage, and simple heat and cold applications.
There are an estimated one mil ion cluster headache sufferers in the United States; about 90 percent of
the sufferers are male. Cluster is one of the least common types of headache, and the cause is
unknown. Similar to migraine, the pain is related to the inflammatory process resulting from an interaction
between the trigeminal nerve and blood vessels in the coverings of the brain. Abnormalities in the
hypothalamus, a deep area of the brain that controls circadian rhythms, may be responsible for the
Cluster headache refers to the characteristic grouping or clustering of attacks. Cluster headaches may
also be known as histamine headache, red migraine, Horton's headache, cephalalgia or spenopalatine
neuralgia. The headache periods can last several weeks or months, and then disappear completely for
months or years, leaving considerable amounts of pain-free intervals between series. Sufferers are
general y affected in the spring or autumn, and, due to their seasonal nature, cluster headaches are
often mistakenly associated with al ergies or business stress.
Cluster headache starts suddenly, and a minimal warning of the oncoming headache may occur,
including a feeling of discomfort or a mild one-sided burning sensation. The pain is of short duration,
general y 30 to 45 minutes. However, the headache may last anywhere from a few minutes to several
hours and wil disappear only to recur later that day. Most sufferers get one to four headaches per day
during a cluster period. They occur regularly, general y at the same times of the day, often awakening the
With typical cluster headaches, the pain is almost always one-sided and remains on the same side
during a series, but pain can occur on the opposite side when a new series starts. Usual y pain is
localized behind the eye or in the eye region and may radiate on the same side to the face or neck. The
affected eye may become swol en or droop and the pupil may contract. The nostril on the affected side is
often congested and nasal discharge and tearing of the eye is on the same side as the pain. Sufferers
may also experience excessive sweating, and the face may become flushed on the affected side.
Cluster sufferers report that even smal amounts of alcohol wil precipitate an attack during a cluster cycle
but not during cluster-free times. Few other triggers have been identified.
About 20% of cluster sufferers' attacks are chronic, occurring throughout the year, thus making the
control of these headaches more difficult. Because chronic cluster headache periods are continuous, the
patients do not respond to conventional forms of cluster therapy.
The patient with cluster headaches should be started on preventive therapy as early as possible in the
cycle in order to curtail the length of the cluster period and decrease the severity of the headaches.
Because of the brief duration of an acute cluster attack, the abortive treatment of these headaches is
difficult. Oxygen inhalation by facial mask has been successful in aborting an acute cluster headache.
Sumatriptan injection is also effective. Prescription preventive medications can include corticosteroids,
verapamil, lithium and neuromodulators such as topiramate and divalproex sodium.
Histamine desensitization and surgical intervention may be considered for chronic cluster headache
patients who have not responded to other forms of standard therapy.
Secondary Headaches - Organically Caused
An organical y caused headache is not a disease itself; rather it is a symptom of another disease or
disorder. Organical y caused headaches are evidence of tumors, infection, high blood pressure, diseases
of the brain, eye, ear and nose, blood clots, and aneurysms to name a few. These conditions can be life-
threatening, so immediate evaluation by a doctor is recommended. Fortunately, these types of headache
Some signs that the headache is related to a serious disorder include change in headache pattern;
headache associated with a medical problem or neurological symptoms such as focal weakness, loss of
consciousness or confusion; pain that becomes progressively more severe or is the ‘worst’ headache ever
experienced; or the individual is using prescription or over-the-counter pain relievers every day.
1. Zueger T, Kirchner P, Herren C, Fischli S, Zwahlen M, Christ E, Glucocorticoid Replacement and Mortality in Patients with J Clin Endocrin Metab. 2012 Aug 7 (Epub ahead of print) [PMID Impact factor: 5.799. max. ranking: 0.913 in Endocrinology & 2. Zueger T, Schuler V, Stettler C, Diem P, Christ E. Assessment of three frequently used blood glucose monitoring Swiss Med Wkly. 2012 Jul 12
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