Headaches are classified as primary headaches and secondary headaches and can occur in one specific location in the head or spread across the entire region. Most headaches are primary headaches and do not indicate any underlying health condition. They are caused by any number of activities that affect the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels in the region of the head and neck. Common types of primary headaches are cluster headaches, migraines, and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying condition of the head. The cause could range from dental or sinus issues to serious life-threatening illnesses such as encephalitis or meningitis. This type of headache can also be associated with substance abuse.

Symptoms

Both types of headaches can cause:

  • Dull, throbbing pain in the head or neck
  • Tightness around the head
  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness

Secondary headaches may be unusually severe or frequent and may be accompanied by other symptoms.

Treatment

Most headaches can be self-treated with over-the-counter medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®). Depending on your individual condition, your health care provider might prescribe alternative treatments for pain management.

Less commonly, a CT scan or MRI may be recommended in circumstances in which symptoms are unusual or there are warning signs or abnormalities in the physical exam.

When to Seek Medical Attention

The vast majority of headaches are not life-threatening. You should seek medical attention if your headaches:

  • Occur more often than usual
  • Are more severe than usual
  • Do not improve with over-the-counter medication

You should seek immediate medical attention if your headache:

  • Comes on suddenly and becomes severe in a few seconds or minutes
  • Is severe and occurs with a fever or a stiff neck
  • Occurs with a seizure, personality change, or fainting
  • Begins quickly after strenuous exercise or a minor injury
  • Occurs with weakness, numbness, visual change, or slurred speech

Causes & Prevention

Secondary headaches have an underlying cause that requires medical attention. However primary headaches can usually be prevented by:

  • Avoiding headache triggers
  • Reducing the over-consumption of medication
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating and exercising regularly
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Managing stress and learning relaxation techniques
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