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What Are Migraine and Tension Headaches?

Talk with your health care provider about a treatment plan that may help relieve pain and prevent future headaches.

Although there are several types of headaches, migraine and tension headaches affect the most people. When you have a headache, it isn't your brain that's hurting. Your head aches because nerves in the bones, blood vessels, and muscles of your head are irritated. These irritated nerves send pain signals to the brain, which identifies where you hurt and judges how bad the pain is.

Outline of head with typical headache pain sites marked around top of head and on side of head above ear. Referred pain sites marked at back of head and at eye.

What Causes Your Headache?

The actual headache process is not yet understood. Only rarely are headaches a sign of a serious medical problem. Headache pain may be caused by abnormal interaction between the brain and the nerves and blood vessels in the head. Environmental stresses or certain foods and drinks may trigger headache pain.

What Is Referred Pain?

Headache pain can be referred pain, which is pain that has its source in one place but is felt in another. For example, pain behind the eyes may actually be caused by tense muscles in the neck and shoulders. This means that the place that hurts may not be the part of the body that needs treatment.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor for headaches that occur along with any of these symptoms:

  • Sudden, severe headache that is different from your usual headache pain

  • High fever along with a stiff neck

  • Recurring headache in children 

  • Ongoing numbness or muscle weakness

  • Loss of vision

  • Pain following a head injury

  • Convulsions, or a change in mental awareness

Is It a Migraine?

Migraine is a throbbing pain felt on one or both sides of the head. You may feel nauseated. This headache may also be associated with changes in sight or sensation (aura). The pain may last for 4 to 72 hours. Afterward, you may feel shaky for a day or so.

Is It a Tension Headache?

This type of headache is usually a dull ache or a sensation of pressure on both sides of the head. It may be associated with pain or tension in the neck and shoulders. The pain may not have a definite beginning or end. It may come and go, or seem never to go away.


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