Top 5 Causes Of Headache

Headache is one of the most common reasons people seek medical attention. These problems account for five percent of all visits to emergency departments annually. The causes of headache are varied and range from completely benign and inconsequential to severe and even life threatening.

Here are five of the more common causes of headache.


1. Tension Headache

tension headache

This type of headache is thought to be caused by contraction of scalp and neck muscles and is often related to emotional and physical stress. It is by far the most common cause of headache. Often described as a tight band around the head or tightness in the back of the head and upper neck, it is usually alleviated with icepacks and over the counter medications.


2. Migraine

These one-sided headaches are throbbing, often severe, and frequently associated with nausea and light sensitivity. People who suffer migraines see doctors for their headaches more than people with any other type. Migraine triggers include a number of factors such as stress, certain foods, alcohol, or menstruation in women. Often by working with their doctors, people can have successful management of migraines.


3. Infectioncauses-of-headache

Headache can accompany any type of infection from the common viral cold (giving sinus pain), to severe infections around the brain and spinal cord called encephalitis and meningitis. Generally, the headaches associated with the more serious infections are much more severe, and people will usually recognize that their situation requires medical attention.


4. Post-traumatic Headache

Headache is a frequent consequence of head injury. It can be mild and manageable to severe and debilitating. Persistent headache after concussion is one factor that prohibits an athlete from returning to playing field, and sports activities are a significant risk for these problems. Head pain after injury can also interfere with function and productivity at school or work.


5. Brain Tumorswoman-headache

Tumors and other space occupying lesions, such as blood from a ruptured aneurysm or swelling in the ventricles of the brain, put immense pressure on the brain because the area inside the skull is fixed and limited. Like those associated with more serious infection, these headaches are very severe and often will have other associated neurological symptoms such visual changes. Fortunately, these kinds of headaches are relatively uncommon.


Headache is a common symptom. The most common types, migraine and tension, are generally benign. They are amenable to control and abortive treatments. Although note that overuse of pain-killers can actually cause headaches for many people – leading to a vicious cycle!

Signs of more serious headache are important to recognize. Headaches of sudden onset are potentially more serious.  A pain that differs in character from previous headache may be a concern. Onset of headaches at older age should prompt a medical evaluation. If a person has mental changes or seizure activity with the pain, he deserves immediate attention. Headaches that are becoming progressively more severe or more frequent can herald a more significant problem and should be investigated. Patients with underlying problems such as previous cancer or known HIV infection should realize that they will need to more vigilant in seeking an evaluation early for headache.


References:, Evaluation of the Adult with Headache in the Emergency Department, reviewed March 18, 2013


About Doug Smith M.D.

Doug has been a full time physician for twenty-three years and continues to work in an emergency room setting. In addition to the day to day practice of medicine, he has a particular interest in medical education.
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