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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

and Migraines

Headache Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

There are several types of headache. Each has distinct symptoms and treatments.

Migraine and Other Vascular Headaches—Symptoms and Diagnosis

  • Migraine: The most common of vascular headaches, migraines are thought to involve abnormal functioning of the brain's blood vessels. Migraines cause severe pain on one or both sides of the head, upset stomach, and, at times, disturbed vision. People often describe migraine pain as pulsing or throbbing in one area of the head. During migraines, people become very sensitive to light and sound. They may also become nauseous and vomit. Women are more likely than men to suffer migraines.
  • Toxic: The second most common type of vascular headache, toxic headache, occurs during fevers
    from disease.
  • Cluster: Cluster headaches cause repeated, intense bouts of pain lasting from 15 minutes to three hours or more.

Tension and Other Muscle-Contraction Headaches—Symptoms and Diagnosis

  • Tension: Ninety percent of all headaches are tension headaches. They are brought on by stressful events and involve the tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles. Pain is mild to moderate and feels like pressure is being applied to the head or neck. Tension headaches normally disappear after the period of stress is over.
  • Chronic: Chronic muscle-contraction headache may last for weeks or months. The pain is often described as a tight band around the head or a feeling that the head and neck are in a cast. "It feels like somebody is tightening a giant vise around my head," says one patient. Pain is steady, and usually felt on both sides of the head. Chronic muscle-contraction headaches can cause sore scalps—even combing one's hair can be painful.
  • Traction and Inflammatory: Less common than tension and migraine headaches, these headaches usually are symptomatic of other disorders, ranging from sinus infection to stroke.


When headaches occur three or more times a month, treatment is typically recommended. Pain medication, biofeedback training, stress reduction, and elimination of certain foods from the diet are the most common methods of controlling and preventing vascular headaches. Regular exercise, including swimming or vigorous walking, can also reduce the number and severity of migraines.

Not all headaches require medical attention. But some types signal more serious disorders and call for prompt medical care. These include:

  • sudden, severe headache
  • sudden headache associated with a stiff neck
  • headaches associated with fever, convulsions, or accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness
  • headaches following a blow to the head, or associated with pain in the eye or ear
  • persistent headache in someone previously headache free
  • recurring headache in children.
illustration of where different types of headache are felt

Illustration © 2009 Fairman Studios, LLC. All Rights Reserved

 Where Does It Hurt?

Headaches are felt in different parts of the brain, as shown here:

  • migraine (blue arrow)
  • cluster headache (red arrows)
  • tension type (yellow arrow)

Click on the image to view a larger version

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • How can I reduce stress, or make other changes in my life to cut down on my headaches?
  • What pain relievers should I take for a headache?
  • Is there anything, besides medication, that can help me?

NIH Research to Results

Much headache research focuses on migraines, which are frequently so severe they prevent people from being able to work or go about their daily activities.

  • NINDS has helped to uncover why, when the level of a certain brain molecule goes up, migraine pain increases. Clinical trials are currently studying how to block the molecule and thus reduce migraine pain.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to discover that the brain stems of migraine sufferers are more sensitive to certain stimulations than people without migraines. Researchers hope this will lead to new, targeted treatments.
  • Gene mutations have been linked to migraines. A Massachusetts General Hospital study has connected a well known mutation found in certain families with the wave of electrical activity in the brain that happens during a migraine. This could help explain why migraines occur more frequently in some families than others. The study was supported by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Read More "Headaches and Migraines" Articles

Understanding Headaches: From Mild to Migraine / Headache Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment / Migraine 101 Quiz

Spring 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 2 Pages 18 - 19