Headaches are the most common form of pain and are a major reason why people miss school or work.

The most common primary headaches are migraine, tension and cluster headaches, but occasionally patients may have headaches secondary to a serious problem like brain tumors.

Not all headaches need medical attention. However, some types of headaches may signal more serious disorders and may require medical care.

The pain is: usually moderate in intensity, throbbing, worsened by activity and often accompanied by either nausea/vomiting or sensitivity to light and noises.

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Possible cause: migraine

There may be a warning before the actual headache, either a subtle one, like a tense feeling in the back of the neck, or a better-defined warning “aura” with flashing lights or other visual disturbance. dull to start, with throbbing, pulsing or pounding as it progresses. If you have severe migraines, consult a neurologist or headache specialist, since it is a chronic brain condition with very good treatment options. A simple test to find out if you have migraine:

If you answer yes to at least two of these three questions, you could have a migraine.

  • Has a headache limited your activities for a day or more in the last three months?
  • Are you nauseated or sick to your stomach when you have a headache?
  • Does light bother you when you have a headache?

Consult your Keck Medicine of USC physician if you have speech, vision or movement issues, especially if they are new migraine symptoms.

The pain is: tight, as though a band is around the head

Possible cause: tension headaches

Tension headaches, also called stress headaches, are the most prevalent type of headache, causing a dull pain, pressure or discomfort in the head, neck or scalp. Tension headaches are most common in older teens and adults, though they can occur at any age, and can last between 30 minutes to a few days. Learning your triggers, such as stress, caffeine or eye strain, can help you avoid the onset of a tension headache.

The pain is: throbbing, with pressure over the sinus areas, cheeks and forehead accompanied by fever and runny nose.

Possible cause: sinusitis

Also called a sinus headache, sinusitis usually occurs after a viral upper respiratory infection, and may also cause congestion or nasal discharge. Sinusitis is generally mild, resolving itself without medical attention. Consult a Keck Medicine of USC physician if your symptoms are severe or occur more than 15 days a month.

The pain is: very severe sharp and intense, in or behind one eye, with tearing and eye redness or runny nose and waking you up from sleep and occurs at the same time of day and clusters around certain months.

Possible cause: cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause sudden bouts of excruciating pain lasting from 15 minutes to three hours. Headaches may occur several times a day for up to 12 weeks, followed by a pain-free period of weeks or months. Cluster headaches are rare, occurring most often in men aged 20 to 50. If these symptoms sound familiar, see your Keck Medicine of USC physician for strategies to relieve pain, and to rule out stroke or aneurysm.

The pain is: Sudden, unexpected and worst ever pain; begins after physical activity; or is accompanied by slurred speech, confusion or difficulty moving

Possible cause: aneurysm or stroke

If you experience sudden and extreme head pain, or have any difficulty moving, seeing, speaking or remembering, see a doctor immediately or call 911. You may be experiencing an aneurysm (a burst blood vessel bleeding into the brain) or a stroke (loss of blood flow to part of the brain), both of which require urgent medical attention.

Whatever the underlying cause of head pain may be, the world-renowned specialists at USC Neurosciences can help you develop a personalized treatment plan for your unique symptoms.

To make an appointment with USC Neurosciences, call (800) USC-CARE or visit neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.