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Types of Headache: Facts and Figures

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 14 Aug 2017 | comments*Discuss
Headache Headaches International

The International Headache Society has now published its second edition of the Classification of Headaches and this describes each type of headache known to medicine. It is intended for use by doctors and physicians as a reference point when diagnosing and treating people who come to them with a headache as one of their main symptoms.

The international headache classification includes three overall categories of headache – primary headaches, secondary headaches and a catch-all for all other types including facial pain, neuralgia and eye pain.

Headaches Classed as Primary

Primary headaches are defined as a headache that occurs as the main symptom and has no apparent cause, such as a brain tumour. Headaches that occur because they are related to another illness are called secondary headaches.

Primary headaches include migraine and tension headaches, one of the two most common types experienced by people all over the world. In this category are also cluster headaches, primary headaches brought on by cough, exertion, sexual intercourse, daily persistent headache and primary thunderclap headache.

Each of these categories is then split into sub groups to make diagnosis easier. So, for example, migraine is split into migraine that is accompanied by an aura, migraine with no aura, retinal migraine, silent migraine (migraine symptoms without head pain) and probable migraine. Tension headaches have four sub categories depending on how often they are experienced. Frequent tension type headaches are defined as causing 10 headaches on 15 or more days each month for a period of at least three months.

Headaches Classed as Secondary

Secondary headaches are known to be associated with a definite cause such as an injury to the head or neck, a problem with the spine, or due to substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms, infection or tumour, for example. Secondary headaches are also then split into several sub types; headaches due to infection can either be due to an infection within the skull itself, an general infection in the body, it can be due to HIV/AIDS or it can occur as a symptom after the infection has cleared but the body is affected by problems related to the immune response to that infection.

Headaches in the Other Category

There are a large number of headaches in this grouping – and most are headaches due to a problem with the nerves, either in the spine, the face or the head. It includes the pain caused by trigeminal neuralgia – where the trigeminal nerve that carries signals across various parts of the face, becomes inflamed, causing bad face and head pain. Also listed are headaches that come on when someone eats a very cold food such as ice cream, or drinks an ice cold drink. It is often called an ice cream headache.

Definite, Chronic or Probable Headaches

All of the types of headache described in the classification can be either chronic – it continues for a long period of time despite treatment and despite the underlying illness clearing up. A probable diagnosis of any particular headache type is based on the symptoms noted when the person experiencing the headaches is examined and their case history is taken. It only becomes a definite diagnosis when that person responds well to the treatment that is given. If the treatment for migraine, for example, reduces the frequency and intensity of the headaches, this is taken as a positive sign that the headaches being experienced are definitely migraines. The success of the treatment ‘proves’ the diagnosis was right.

The View of the World Health Organisation

The World Health Organisation accepts the classification of headaches put forward by the International Headache Society that was last revised in 2004. It recognises headaches as a common problem that affects a large number of people throughout the world, causing great suffering to people and their families, economic losses for individuals, communities and nations and a significant cost to healthcare services.

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[Add a Comment]
For the past few weeks I've been getting headaches so bad on one side of my head and I have temporarily lose sight in the eye until the head ache goes , the pain is so bad and no ta let's help. I get about 2-3 attacks a day and 1-2 a night it's literally ruining my life
Moomoo - 14-Aug-17 @ 1:40 AM
I bit my head about a year ago and since then I have had persistent headaches in the back/bottom of my skull (where I hit it, it was very hard and although not concussion I was off school because of dizziness and just feeling very off) and upp the top of my spine. I get bursts of dizziness where I have to grab onto something or I fall. I also have experienced 3 migraines since which I something I had never had before. Not severe or keeping me from going to school (unless migraine) but they can be very annoying and when especially painful (but not migraine) painkillers don't help. Was wondering if maybe chiropractic treatment would help?
Eve - 3-May-16 @ 7:40 PM
Queen - Your Question:
I've had a bad headache now for 7 days I've been to hospital were they took some bloods (all clear) I have noticed my water is very dark could a water infection cause the headaches ?

Our Response:
If your water is dark it may mean you are de-hydrated and de-hydration is a common cause of headaches (the lighter the colour your urine is, the less de-hydrated you are). I suggest you consume more water and fluids during the day. However, if you are concerned in any way about the colour of your urine and think the colour unnaturally dark, then you should make another appointment to see your GP.
HeadacheExpert - 19-Feb-16 @ 2:35 PM
I've had a bad headache now for 7 days I've been to hospital were they took some bloods (all clear) I have noticed my water is very dark could a water infection cause the headaches ?
Queen - 18-Feb-16 @ 7:57 PM
@Dawn - if you are concerned you should make an appointment to see your doctor again. I'm sure a headache will just be part of the viral infection. I hope it clears soon.
HeadacheExpert - 29-May-15 @ 12:30 PM
I have had sore throat and dr said that i have a viral infection. Now i am getting headaches especially behind the eyes i am really concerned is there anything I should be worried about
Dawn - 26-May-15 @ 10:15 PM
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