A headache is a type of pain localised to the head and neck region.

There are myriad possible headache causes, as there are hundreds of different headache types. However, most of them can be broadly categorised as primary or secondary headaches.

Primary headaches are those not symptomatic of an underlying condition and make up about 90 percent of all headaches. These include tension headaches (resulting from muscular tightness in the shoulders, neck, scalp and jaw), migraines and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches are symptoms of other conditions, which can range in seriousness from a hangover, for example, to a blood vessel rupturing in the brain, raised intracranial pressure or meningitis.

What are its symptoms?

Headache symptoms are, as the name suggests, an ache in the region of the head. The pain may affect the entire head or may be isolated to just one area. Headache can be characterised by any of the following:

  • Sharp pain
  • Throbbing or pulsating pain
  • A dull ache
  • A squeezing sensation, as if a vice is being tightened around the head
  • Headache pain may spread to the face, neck, jaw or shoulders
  • A migraine headache can be accompanied by blurred vision, nausea and sometimes photophobia (where bright lights hurts your eyes)

How is it diagnosed?

A headache may not always necessitate a trip to the doctor but it can be difficult to know the difference between a low- and high-risk headache.

The following headache types warrant further medical investigation, in which a doctor may perform a physical examination, blood tests or imaging tests to determine the cause:

  1. New-onset headache in those over the age of 50
  2. Severe headache following injury to the head
  3. Sudden, severe headache
  4. Headache accompanied by mental changes or decreased consciousness
  5. Headache with loss of motion
  6. Headache accompanied by a fever, rash, vomiting or stiff neck
  7. New-onset headache in somebody with cancer or HIV.

What are your treatment options?

Headache treatment depends on the underlying cause. Sometimes a headache can be dispelled with over-the-counter pain medication, whereas at other times it may be symptomatic of another condition, which may require its own specialised medical treatment.

Can it be prevented?

By and large, headache prevention is not possible in the case of secondary headaches. Preventative medication can be prescribed for those who have frequent cluster headaches and for migraine sufferers, and avoiding things which trigger the headaches can help too.

It is also possible to reduce some of the many lifestyle-related risk factors that can lead to headaches, for example, cutting down on alcohol consumption to avoid a headache due to hangover or practising relaxation techniques to help avoid stress-related headaches.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015