Most headaches and migraines are unpleasant but harmless and can be relieved with self-help measures and pharmacy painkillers. Only a few (around 5%) are a sign that something is seriously wrong. These more serious headaches are often accompanied by other warning signs. For example, a headache accompanied by a rash and a very high temperature could be meningitis.
Get medical advice urgently if your headache occurs suddenly and severely, especially after a blow to the head, or if it's accompanied by a fever or feelings of drowsiness.
Here's a guide to the different types of migraine and headaches and how to tackle them.
Migraines are much more than just a headache. The Migraine Action Association says that migraines are the most common neurological (nerve-related)condition in the developed world. They affect more than 15% of the UK population. Around two-thirds of migraines are in women. Migraines affect more people than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined.
Attacks, which can last from 4 to 72 hours, can be completely disabling, and can prevent people from carrying out their usual activities for up to three days. Even when they don't have symptoms, people affected may live in fear of the next attack.
There is no cure for migraines, but it is possible to control them with a range of treatments. However, what's successful for one person may not work for another, so it's important to keep trying different treatments until you find one that works for you.
Around 10% of people who have migraines also experience aura symptoms. These are disturbances that start 15 minutes to an hour before the headache. They can include blind spots, flashing lights, zigzag patterns, tingling, pins and needles, or numbness in the limbs.
Abdominal migraines often occur in children. They cause recurrent attacks of abdominal pain lasting for several hours. When the child reaches adolescence, this often changes to the more common migraine pattern.
Migraines in women are often linked to hormone changes. True menstrual migraines occur within two days either before or after the first day of a monthly period and at no other time.
Migraines are believed to be caused by the release of a chemical called serotonin into the bloodstream, resulting in changes in the brain. Exactly what causes this to happen is still a subject for research and debate. However, certain factors that can trigger attacks in susceptible people have been identified. These include:
- emotional stress, such as anger, tension or shock
- physical stress, such as overexertion or travelling
- diet, such as infrequent meals, alcohol (especially red wine) or additives
- environmental causes, such as supermarket lights, computer screens, smoking or loud noise
- hormonal causes, such as puberty, menstruation or pregnancy
- high blood pressure, eye strain or the use of sleeping tablets
Cluster headaches are a rare form of headache. They affect less than 1% of the UK population. They're often considered to be the worst type of headache because the pain is so intense. They usually occur around one eye.
Cluster headaches are more common in middle-aged men, but women can also have them. They affect people of all ages from four to over 80.
Attacks occur in clusters of up to eight per day, usually for a duration of six to eight weeks. They then may not occur again for months or even years.Read more about cluster headaches.
Chronic daily headaches
These are estimated to affect 3-4% of the UK population and occur on more than 15 days each month. They can be caused by tension, muscle contraction and taking too many painkillers.
These headaches affect both sides of the head and cause a constant feeling of pressure or a tight band around the head.
Painkillers can help relieve headaches, but it's possible to develop a tolerance to them, causing rebound headaches known as painkiller headaches. The condition can develop with overuse of any type of painkiller.
If you take medication to treat headaches on more than two days a week for three months or more, you're at risk of painkiller headaches. Consult your GP to identify the cause of the headaches and discuss other treatment options.
Getting help for headaches
Most headaches and migraines can be treated with help and support from a GP. However, there are migraine clinics where you can receive specialist attention. Ask for a referral from your GP.
Find your local migraine and headache services.
Article provided by NHS Choices