What is a headache?

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A common headache can be debilitating
A common headache can be debilitating

Most people don't get headaches very often, but around 15% of the population are affected so badly that they have to consult a doctor. In fact, headache is the most common cause of pain that prompts patients to consult their GP. In adults, headaches are four times more prevalent in women and often linked to hormonal fluctuations.

A headache (cephalagia) is a pain in the head that may manifest above the eyes or ears, at the back of the head or at the base of the skull. Almost everyone suffers from a headache from time to time. In fact, 80-90% of people globally are affected by headaches every year.

Most headaches are primary headaches, which means that they are not associated with any other disease. Secondary headaches may have a number of causes – from brain tumours and meningitis, to harmless conditions like caffeine withdrawal.

The majority of headaches are infrequent and transient annoyances that disappear with the help of an analgesic or other painkiller. But for one person in ten, a headache is an excruciating experience that might herald some serious disorder.

Types of headaches

There are a number of different types of primary headaches, including cluster headaches, migraines and tension headaches, which are the most common kind.

Different parts of the head and face may be affected by headaches, depending on the type or cause.

When a headache is unbearable, frequent or accompanied by other symptoms it warrants a visit to a medical professional for further investigation.

Read more: 

Causes of headaches  

Preventing headaches  

Diagnosing headaches

Reviewed by Dr Elliot Shevel, BDS, Dip MFOS, MB, BCh, Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon and Medical Director, The Headache Clinic, Johannesburg and Cape Town, February 2015. 

Previously reviewed by Dr Andrew Rose-Innes, MD, Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven

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