Headache causes, treatments, and types

Can our knowledge of headache causes help us to treat headaches more effectively?  Do different types of headache and migraine and cluster headache come from different sources?

Yes, our understanding of headache causes has grown significantly in the past 30 years.  We know that, whatever it may feel like, your brain doesn't "hurt" because it has no nerve endings.  However, nerves in the head outside of the brain certainly send pain signals during a headache.

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This understanding has led to new treatments that can target the symptoms of migraine or headache more specifically.  However, there's still a lot we don't understand about headache and migraine.

What "Cause" are you looking for?

headache causes
Before we look at what actually causes headache - let's talk about what we mean by a "cause".  A true cause would be something like a disease or genetic flaw or even an outside force that brings on a headache in a person who would be healthy otherwise.  Though we still have a lot to learn about what causes headache or migraine, we do have some clues which we'll talk about in a moment.

However, sometimes people who talk about headache causes are talking about triggers.  Most often, this is a migraine trigger, or something that sets off a migraine attack.  In a person predisposed to migraine (a person with migraine disease), certain factors such as food or hormonal changes or weather may trigger a specific attack.  Find out about migraine triggers here.

Tension Type Headache

Many people associate tension headaches (now called tension type headaches) with common mild headaches.  The truth is, the distinction between these and migraine is not so clear.

We used to think that these were caused by the contracting of the layer of muscle around your skull, which in turn can decrease blood flow to your head.  Although muscles and blood vessels may play a part, often people with a so-called "tension" headache don't have unusual muscle tension!  Neither is it caused by moodiness.  This common headache is most likely caused by a similar mechanism to migraine (see below).

Your website is such a welcome relief to so many.  Thank you for the frank, plain-English explanations of why I feel so lousy sometimes, and especially so that I can find a way to explain to my wife what these darn things are like to live through.
~ Andy

Migraine

There are many types of migraine, but most are probably caused by a similar mechanism.  Migraine may actually be caused by issues deep in the brain stem.  In spite of the advances made in the past few years, there is still a lot we don't know about our own brains.

Migraine does seem to be caused by a web of reactions and chain-reactions that happen in the body.  They likely start with genetic abnormalities in certain people, and a brain which becomes over-sensitive to stimulus.  A chain reaction begins, including changes in the trigeminal nerve and a kind of "brain storm" called a cortical spreading depression.

If you want to go into more detail, read What is Migraine? (the scientific story)

As we learn more about migraine, we're finding more effective treatments.  Read How to treat a migraine to get started.

Cluster headache

Because cluster headaches come in "clusters" - that is, they are attacks that tend to come like clockwork during a 24 hour cycle, and sometimes following cycles of years or seasons, we think that they are related to the body's biological clock.  The hypothalamus, a portion of the brain, is where the body's clock seems to be.  Researchers have found that cluster patients have increased activity in this part of the brain during attacks.

Like migraine, the headache causes of cluster is probably due to a complex web of reactions taking place, including the trigeminal nerve.  Although we don't understand the ultimate cause of cluster, it does seem to relate to abnormalities in the hypothalamus.

Read about cluster headache treatments here.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are caused by another known problem, such as allergies, a blow to the head, or a viral infection.  The Mayo Clinic has a list of some of these headache causes here.

This website investigates headache causes, treatments, triggers and the latest research.  To investigate these and other headaches, this page will help you find your type of headaches.

Are you tired of just living with headache, cluster, or migraine?
It's time to fight back!
James (Health writer and researcher)





I ... wanted to touch base with you about the wonderful website.  I have a 15 year old son ... who has been suffering from migraines since October.  Your section on weather related migraines has proven to be so helpful.  I was so thankful to find your website and I have passed it on to two other migraine suffers.  So thank you so much for your hard work and I just wanted to let you know you have made a Mom in ... Canada feel so much better.   ~ Kathy (Canada)



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