Common headache signs and symptoms
Symptoms of some of the common types of headache include:
- Tension headaches: Mild to moderate pain or pressure affecting the top, sides or front of the head. Pain typically begins gradually, varying in intensity, and can last between 30 minutes to several days at a time. A chronic tension headache may come and go over a prolonged period of time and also varies in intensity throughout the day. Other associated symptoms along with head pain may include chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep), concentration problems, irritability, muscle ache, and a mild sensitivity to noise or light.
- Cluster headaches: Pain is intense and felt on one side of the head (behind the eye), often described as burning, piercing or throbbing. Pain typically lasts for a short period of time (between 30 and 90 minutes), but can recur later in a day. Many experience cluster headaches between 3 and 8 times a day or night, and on a regular basis. Sometimes a sufferer may be awoken during the night with this type of headache.
- Migraine: Pain is typically felt in a variety of combinations – it may be a pounding or throbbing ranging from moderate to severe and affecting the entire head, or shifting from one side to the other. Pain can also be accompanied by a sensitivity to noise, smells and light, as well as with other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, abdominal pain and stomach upset, warm or cold sensations, fatigue, dizziness, a pale complexion, loss of appetite, and sometimes fever. Many experience migraine with aura, which involves vision changes or disturbances such as bright, flashing dots, blind spots or jagged lines as well as facial tingling or numbness and difficulty in speaking (aphasia).
- Mixed headache syndrome: Pain (intense throbbing) is severe, normally accompanied by nausea and vomiting, and can occur daily.
- Acute headaches: Pain develops quickly and is described as sharp, aching or throbbing, and felt in the head or upper neck (or both). Pain is felt on one or both sides of the head and is often accompanied by fever, nausea and vomiting. Acute headaches are often described as “the worst headache of my life” because of the severity. These headaches can sometimes be assessed and diagnosed as thunderclap headaches or migraines.
- Hormonal headaches: When oestrogen levels drop or fluctuate, a hormonal imbalance occurs, causing a headache. A drop in oestrogen is typical just before a woman’s menstrual period or for those using birth control pills (oral contraception) for instance and affects the head and neck. Pain can range from mild to moderate or even a full-blown migraine.
- Sinus headaches: Pain is felt in the forehead, cheekbones or the bridge of the nose and typically intensifies with any sudden movement or straining. A runny nose (sinus discharge), facial swelling, fever and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ears normally accompany the pain.
- Chronic progressive headaches: Typically, these headaches are as a result of an underlying illness, such as a brain tumour, subdural haematoma, infection or a wide variety of other intracranial disorders. Pain is often felt suddenly (sometimes in the middle of the night or early in the morning due to increased pressure on the skull or head), and may be accompanied by vomiting. Other symptoms can include a worsening of pain when under strain (sneezing, coughing or during a bowel movement), as well as experiencing other neurological discomforts, such as numbness, vision impairment or loss, body weakness, behavioural changes and difficulties with walking.
When should you worry about a headache?
Headaches that occur suddenly or are incredibly intense (severe) may be signalling something which needs medical intervention. While common, the majority of headaches you’ll experience in a lifetime will generally clear up without causing any further medical concerns or health problems. Most headaches are not life-threatening.
If you experience headaches that suddenly occur more often than they did before, are more severe than usual, don’t appear to clear up with appropriate use of pain-relieving medications (or worsen), or impact your ability to participate in normal activity (working, sleeping habits etc.) and are causing you distress, see your doctor for a thorough check-up.
Chronic headaches, migraines and even cluster headaches are often not typically considered a sign of a severe or debilitating illnesses and medical conditions. A physician may be able to help you determine a cause or set of triggers, and assist with being able to treat them a little better. These headaches may not necessarily be a sign that there is an underlying cause that could be life-threatening.
Emergency warning signs
If you experience any of the below symptoms along with headache, it is best to seek medical attention and treatment immediately. In some instances, headaches are a sign something serious may be going on in the body. Symptoms to take note of include:
- Feeling faint
- A high fever
- Problems understanding speech or speaking
- Difficulties with writing or understanding written words
- Paralysis on one side of the body
- Numbness or weakness
- A stiff neck
- Unexplained nausea and vomiting (i.e. if you are not able to associate these symptoms with anything else you’ve recently done or experienced such as a flu infection or a hangover)
- Problems with vision
- Problems with walking
Other warning signs that require medical attention immediately include:
- Thunderclap headaches: Pain is extreme and this is a severe type of headache that occurs suddenly (within 60 seconds). These are typically caused by bleeding in the brain and are often as a result of a stroke, head injury or aneurysm.
- Headaches following head trauma: Any head injury, including a concussion following a minor fall or bump to the head, that results in a headache must be taken seriously and immediate medical attention sought out. If any bleeding occurs in the brain and isn’t checked, this can be life-threatening.
- Headaches with unusual or unexplained symptoms: If headaches suddenly appear after the age of 50, suddenly change in severity, location or frequency, become consistently worse or seem to be accompanied by personality changes or hallucinations, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.