Most commonly, a person suffering from headaches will have either the tension headache or migraine headache types. However, the distinction between these headache types is not as simple as it would seem. In fact, some experts believe that there is no real distinction between these headache types but, rather, they all share a common underlying cause that has several different contributing factors.
Tension headaches are sometimes referred to as muscle contraction headaches. They are the most common type of headaches and can be felt anywhere in the head, but the temples and forehead are the most frequent areas. They are also associated with tightness in the head or scalp. They are not typically associated with other symptoms such as nausea, numbness or visual sensations but can be worsened by emotional stress.
Migraine headaches are usually more severe than tension headaches and generally occur in attacks that can last from a few hours to a few days. They are often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and sound, numbness or coldness in the hands or tremor. In some cases, the patient experiences an aura – a period of 10-30 minutes preceding the headache during which the person experiences symptoms such as jagged lines or flashing lights before the eyes, strange odors, difficulty speaking or numbness.
One of the most common causes of headaches that do not originate in the head is called a cervicogenic headache. The source of pain stems from structures around the neck which may be impinged or damaged. These structures can include joints, ligaments, muscles, and cervical discs, all of which have complex nerve endings. When these structures are damaged, the nerve endings send pain signals up the pathway from the nerves of the neck to the brain. During this process, the signals communicate or intermingle with the nerve fibres of the trigeminal nerve. Since the trigeminal nerve is responsible for the perception of “head” pain, the patient experiences the symptoms of a headache. Cervicogenic headaches are characterized by pain on one side of the head with associated neck pain on the same side. A patient with these headaches perceives pain in the head, but the actual source of the pain lies in the cervical spine.
There are other, less common, types of headache that must be considered for a proper diagnosis of the headache disorder to be made. Some of the more important ones are:
Cluster headaches occur in “clusters” which can occur for days, weeks or months at a time, then disappear for up to a year or more.
Temporal arteritis headaches are caused by inflammation of an artery and occur on the side of the head.
Sinus headaches are caused by sinus infection.
In addition, more potentially serious causes of pain in the head must be taken into consideration.