Signs and Symptoms of Headache

young man sitting on couch with blanket experiencing head pain

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Most people have headaches from time to time, but when your headaches are a regular occurrence, you may have a headache disorder. There are three primary types of headaches: migraine, tension headaches, and cluster headaches.

Each type of headache can be prevented or treated with different strategies, so it helps to know which headache disorder you have. That said, it’s helpful to know and recognize the specific symptoms of each type of headache.

Headache symptoms can range from mild to severe, and come on gradually or strike suddenly and without warning. This can be frustrating, but understanding your headache patterns and knowing your symptoms is a key step in figuring out what type of headache you have and what you can do to manage your symptoms.  

Common Symptoms 

Although there are differences between each of the three primary headache disorders, they do share some symptoms. 

The most common symptom is head pain. This includes pain felt all over your head—including the back of the head, face, and scalp—as well as pain in localized areas, such as on only one side of your head or face, or only behind the eyes or cheeks. Your headache pain may also cause aching in your neck and shoulders. 

Migraine Symptoms 

Migraine can often be the most debilitating type of headache—which not only causes head pain, but can also affect your ability to function. This kind of headache can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours.

Migraine attacks can come in four different stages: prodrome (start of migraine), aura, headache, and postdrome (after migraine attack). Each person experiences migraine differently, but general symptoms of each stage may include:

Migraine Stage  Symptoms 
Prodrome  Mood swings, food cravings, fluid retention, fatigue or excessive yawning, and the urge to urinate 
Aura Seeing flashing lights or zig-zag lines, muscle weakness, blurred vision, and dizziness 
Headache  Throbbing or pulsing pain on one side of your head, sensitivity to sounds, lights, or smells, nausea, vomiting, and pain that lasts up to three days 
Postdrome Exhaustion, body weakness, trouble focusing, and feeling confused 

Tension Headache Symptoms 

Tension headaches are the most common kind of headaches, causing mild to moderate pain. Generally, they are shorter and more tolerable than migraine attacks. 

Here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Head pain on both sides of your head 
  • Aching in your temples 
  • Neck and shoulder pain 
  • Pain that is dull, not throbbing 
  • Feeling of tightness around your head, as if you’re wearing a headband 

Cluster Headache Symptoms 

The onset of cluster headache symptoms can happen suddenly. A cluster headache is generally more painful than a tension headache, but less severe than migraine. 

You may have a cluster headache if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Intense pain that feels sharp or stabbing 
  • Pain on one side of the head that can last up to three hours 
  • Runny nose 
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sweating or skin that is warm to the touch
  • Restlessness 
  • Droopy eyelid, tears, or eye redness 

Symptoms in Children

Headaches can affect anyone of any age, including young people. In fact, one study estimates that about 75% of children between the ages of 10 and 18 will have at least one headache each year.

Generally, there isn’t a difference in headache symptoms by age. Headache symptoms are usually the same regardless if you are a child or adult. However, there is one noticeable exception: children can get symptoms of an abdominal migraine. 

Abdominal migraine is a type of migraine that mainly occurs in childhood. While it is still a neurological disorder like migraine, it doesn’t usually cause the hallmark symptom of head pain. Instead, children may have unexplained stomach pain, nausea, loss of appetite, and light or sound sensitivity.

Children with a family history of migraine are at a higher risk of having abdominal migraine—and while they may outgrow migraine attacks when they reach adulthood, many children also go on to experience more traditional migraine symptoms as they age.

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

You don’t have to contact your healthcare provider every time you have a headache, but if you notice a pattern developing—where your headaches are becoming more frequent, more severe, or harder to treat—you should schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. If they suspect a more serious issue, they may refer you to a neurologist (or, a doctor who specializes in the brain and spinal cord) for further evaluation

In general, it’s a good idea to see your provider for your headaches if they are:

  • Happening multiple times per week
  • Interfering with your life, such as causing you to miss work or school and skip or cancel events
  • Not getting any better even with over-the-counter medications and other treatments 
  • Occurring with other symptoms such as light sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting

It’s also important to note when a headache or headache-related symptoms warrant an urgent care visit or a call to 911. Seek emergency care if you or a loved one experiences:  

  • A sudden and extremely severe headache—which can be a sign of a stroke
  • A fever, nausea, and/or vomiting with your headache that comes on unexpectedly
  • A loss of vision 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or numbness that makes you unable to pick up items or feel your limbs 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Intense pain after a head injury

A Quick Review 

Head pain is a telltale sign of most types of headaches. There are three primary types of headaches: migraine, tension, and cluster headaches—each of which comes with its own set of unique symptoms. 

Generally, migraine is the most severe, cluster headaches are intense, but less severe, and tension headaches are the most common and tolerable. However, any type of headache can be frustrating and interfere with your day. 

In most cases, headache pain occurs in your head, or surrounding body parts, like your neck and shoulders. But, aches and pain aren’t the only symptom. Depending on the type of headache you have, you might also experience nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness, fatigue, blurred vision, and light or noise sensitivity. 

Recognizing your symptoms can help you and your provider determine what type of headache condition you have, which can help guide your prevention and treatment plan. 

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