Pain in the head of variable severity due to a variety of causes

  • More common over the age of 20
  • More common in females
  • Stress is a risk factor
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

In the UK, 8 in 10 people have at least one headache each year. The majority of headaches last for only a few hours, but some persist for weeks.

Pain may occur in only one part of the head, such as above the eyes, or it may be spread across the entire head. The type of pain varies; it may be sharp and sudden or dull and constant. Sometimes, other symptoms, such as nausea, occur at the same time.

What are the causes?

There are many possible causes of headache that determine the site and nature of the pain. About 3 in 4 of all headaches are caused by tension in the scalp or neck muscles. Tension headaches tend to recur frequently and cause moderate pain that affects both sides of the head. Other types of headache, including migraine and cluster headaches, have a variety of possible causes. Occasionally, headache results from prolonged use of strong painkillers.

Very few headaches have a serious underlying cause (see Symptom chart: Headache), but those that do require urgent medical attention. For example, a severe headache may be a sign of meningitis, a condition in which the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord become inflamed; encephalitis, in which the brain tissue is inflamed; or subarachnoid haemorrhage, in which there is sudden bleeding between the membranes covering the brain. In an elderly person, a headache with tenderness of the scalp or temple may be due to giant cell arteritis, an inflammation of the blood vessels in the head.

If your headache is severe, lasts more than 24 hours, or is accompanied by other symptoms, such as abnormal sensitivity to light, vomiting, or a rash, you should seek medical advice without delay.

What might be done?

You will be physically examined by your doctor. If it appears that an underlying disorder is causing your headache, you may have tests, such as CT scanning or MRI of your brain, or a lumbar puncture.

Treatment depends on the cause of the headache. A tension headache will usually clear up with rest and painkillers. Cluster headaches and migraine headaches can be treated with a specific drug, such as a triptan drug. (see Antimigraine drugs).

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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