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Common Types of Headache

Tension-type Headache

The International Headache Society described tension-type headache as infrequent episodes of headache that last minutes to days. The pain is usually bilateral in location with a pressing or tightening quality. Tension-type headache does not usually worsen with physical activity and may not cause disability. Nausea is usually not a symptom, but light sensitivity or sound sensitivity may be present.

Tension type headache is the most common type of headache and as many as 30% to 78% of the general population experience one at some time during their lifetime. Tension-type headaches occurring frequently or even daily are classified as chronic tension-type headaches and are a serious condition that is associated with headache-induced disability and significantly impacts quality of life.

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches are less common than tension-type headaches. Nevertheless, migraines afflict about 28 million people in the United States alone. As many as 6% of all men and up to 18% of all women (about 12% of the population as a whole) experience a migraine headache at some time. Roughly three out of four migraine sufferers are female. It is important to recognize that children also get migraine and it affects between 5-10% of children under the age of 18 years.

Migraine is described as a recurrent headache lasting 4-72 hours and often has unilateral pulsating pain, moderate to severe intensity pain, nausea and/or sensitivity to light. The pain of migraine can be aggravated by routine physical activity.

About one in five migraine sufferers experiences an aura prior to onset of a migraine headache. Auras are neurologic symptoms that may occur before, during and after a migraine. There are many different types of either visual or other sensory auras and they may differ between attacks.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches occur in about 1% of the population and are distinct from migraine and tension-type headaches on several levels. Most of the cluster headache sufferers are men with onset between ages of 20-40 (where most migraineurs are women with onset following the start of menstruation).

  • These attacks are characterized by severe, unilateral pain that is around the eye or along the side of the head.
  • Headache attacks last from 15 to 180 minutes and occur once every other day to up to 8 times daily.
  • Attacks are associated with tearing on the same side of the head that the pain is located. Patients may also experience nasal congestion, runny nose, forehead and facial sweating, dropping eyelids or eyelid swelling.
  • During an attack, patients may be restless or agitated due to excruciating pain
  • In about 5% of the cases, cluster headache may be hereditary
  • Attacks occur in clusters or periods with weeks or months between new cluster periods; remission periods may be months or even years
  • 10-15% of patients do not experience long periods of remission
  • During a cluster period, attacks may be provoked or triggered by alcohol or selected drugs like histamine or nitroglycerin
  • Pain usually presents on the same side each attack

Above content provided by the American Headache Society in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2009

Contact Information

Arnold Pain Management Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
One Brookline Place, Suite 105
Brookline, MA 02445
617-278-8000
617-278-8065