Common Headache Symptoms
The variety of symptoms from headaches is considerable, and vary with different types.
Possibly the most common is the tension headache, usually the result of muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, or around the face. Migraines, affecting about 6-13% of the population (roughly 6% are men, 13% are women), is much higher in intensity (and often in length). Cluster headaches, often listed as another type, is really more of a pattern – headaches that occur for short periods per day, sometimes lasting for weeks.
Tension headaches are familiar to just about every adult, with pain in the head sometimes diffuse, but often focused around the eyes or temples. When the result of inflamed neck or back muscles, the pain will often be further back. In practice, the pain can be nearly anywhere above the neck, but is typically more localized.
Tension headaches are frequently accompanied by watery eyes, sometimes even a runny nose. Perceived as a pressure around the eyebrows, a tension headache can produce pain that migrates further down, causing reddening in the eyeballs. Fortunately, they are rarely severe enough to cause vomiting or excessive sensitivity to light and sound, as migraines can.
Migraines are an entirely separate class of headache, as their unfortunate sufferers can attest. Though the causes are still only partly understood, there is a strong genetic component and those who suffer from them often do so for years. In many cases the condition is nearly lifelong, though treatments have improved.
In a migraine, intense, throbbing pain is felt – usually around one temple or the other. These so-called ‘unilateral attacks’ will often alternate between temples. Because the pain is so intense, however, the effects can be perceived to spread to other parts of the head. Pain behind the eyes is common, sometimes accompanied by inflamed eye blood vessels.
When there is no alternation, the headache may have an entirely different cause, such as being what is named a ‘secondary headache’ – one caused by some underlying condition, such as a brain tumor.
Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms, as well. Hyper-sensitivity to light and sound are commonly reported. Attacks can last as ‘short’ as a few hours, to as long as a few days or more. They’re often preceded by warning symptoms that hint at a coming episode, such as sleepiness and fatigue or craving for sweets.
When the attack arrives, the intense pain often produces nausea and vomiting. Sometimes diarrhea results, and others suffer cold hands and feet, along with the light and sound sensitivity. In some cases, attacks can be triggered by something as simple as walking upstairs.
Cluster headaches are not a separate type of pain, but a pattern. They usually last a half-hour to an hour, but then re-occur (often at the same time of day), the next day. Once they arrive, they usually stay around for long periods. The pattern can be repeated for weeks or longer, then disappear for months. The symptoms are similar to tension headaches, but can be more migraine like.