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Classifying Headaches

What Do All These Symptoms Mean?

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Updated June 05, 2014

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Headaches come with symptoms as unique as the headache sufferer. There are a number of common symptoms which can help you determine which type of headache you are experiencing.

Migraine Symptoms

A typical migraine will have one or more of the following symptoms:
  • Moderate to severe pain
  • Pain located on one or both sides of the head
  • Pulsating or throbbing pain
  • Pain made worse with activity
  • Pain that may impair your ability to function “normally”
  • Nausea, with or without vomiting
  • Light sensitivity (photophobia)
  • Sound sensitivity (phonophobia)
If you experience an aura before having your migraine, you may have one or more of the following issues:
  • Sparkling flashes of light in your vision
  • Zigzag types of lines in your vision
  • Slowly expanding blind spots
  • Tingling, “pins and needles” sensation in one arm or leg
  • Weakness
  • Language or speech problems
Problems with language or speech, or weakness can be confused with stroke symptoms so it is important to report these to your physician. Children can also have “abdominal migraines,” which can be difficult to diagnose. In these cases a child may have nausea, vomiting, and other typical migraine symptoms, but without head pain.

Tension Headache Symptoms

While many people use the term migraine to mean any headache, symptoms of a tension headache are clear. During a tension headache, you may experience:
  • Squeezing pain on both sides of the head, although one-sided pain is possible
  • Pain located over the forehead, temples, or back of the neck
  • Radiation of pain into the neck and shoulders
  • Moderate pain
  • Pain that gradually appears
  • Stress or stressful situations prior to the headache
Tension headaches do not usually have symptoms like light or sound sensitivity or nausea and vomiting. While the pain appears gradually, there is not usually an aura or any warning signs that a tension headache is about to appear.

Cluster Headache Symptoms

Cluster headaches are quite uncommon, affecting less than 1% of adults. Symptoms of cluster headaches are fairly unique, however so it is good to understand the common symptoms.
  • Repetitive headaches occurring on and off for weeks at a time
  • Quickly-appearing pain on one side of the head, usually behind the eye
  • Stuffy nose and watery eye
  • Very severe pain

Warning Signs

Some headaches are due to more urgent medical conditions. If any of the following occur, call your physician:
  • Severe headache with stiff neck, vomiting, and light sensitivity
  • Headache following a head injury
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Any headache lasting for more than 24 hours in someone without a history of heaches
As with any medical condition, discuss the symptoms you are having with your healthcare provider in order to make a proper diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatments.

Sources:

Drummond, P.D. and J.W. Lance. "Clinical diagnosis and computer analysis of headache symptoms." J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1984 February; 47(2): 128–133.

Headaches. American Academy of Family Physicians. Family Health & Medical Guide. Dallas: Word Publishing; 1996. Retrieved: August 22, 2008. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/502.html

Migraine. U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Retrieved: August 29, 2008. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000709.htm

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