Dr Anne MacGregor describes common causes of headaches, the differences between a normal headache and more severe forms such as a migraine, and treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

When to see a doctor 

If you’ve been getting really bad headaches it’s natural to wonder if there’s something seriously wrong, like a brain tumour. This is extremely rare and the cause is almost always something else.

However, it’s best to see a doctor if:

  • you feel unwell between your headaches
  • your headaches aren’t relieved by pharmacy treatments
  • your headaches are so painful that they’re limiting your ability to get on with life or are causing you to miss work

Pregnancy headaches

Coping with headaches in pregnancy, and what you can safely do to ease them

More than 10 million people in the UK get headaches, making them one of the most common health complaints, but most are easily treated.

Most headaches aren’t serious and can be treated with pharmacy remedies and lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking enough fluids.

Headaches have many different causes but can generally be split into two types:

  • primary headaches – those not due to another underlying health problem
  • secondary headaches – which have a separate cause, such as illness

These are described in more detail below, with links to more information on specific causes of headaches.

Primary headaches

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common, and what we think of as normal everyday headaches.

They feel like a dull ache with constant pressure around the front, top and sides of the head as if a rubber band has been stretched around it.

Stress is one cause, but there are lots of others, including drinking too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, depression, skipping meals and becoming dehydrated.

Read more about tension headaches.


Migraines are less common. If a headache is recurrent and disabling to the point of stopping you from carrying on with daily life, it may be a migraine.

People describe migraines as a pounding or throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head.

Most people treat their migraines successfully with over-the-counter medication. If they’re severe, however, you may need stronger migraine-specific medication that is only available on prescription from a doctor.

Read more about migraines.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a third type of primary headache. These excruciatingly painful headaches cause an intense pain around one eye. They're rare and are called cluster headaches because they happen in clusters for a month or two at a time around the same time of year.

Pharmacy medications don't ease the symptoms of a cluster headache, but a doctor can prescribe specific treatments to ease the pain.

Read more about cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches

These include headaches that come on after drinking too much alcohol or after a head injury or concussion.

You may also get a headache when you’ve had:

Medication and painkiller headaches

Some headaches are a side effect of taking a particular medication and frequent headaches can also be caused by taking too many painkillers.

Read more about painkiller headaches.

Hormone headaches

Headaches in women are often caused by hormones, and many women notice a link with their periods. The Pill, the menopause and pregnancy are also potential triggers.

Read more about hormone headaches.

Temporomandibular joint disorders

Headaches are one of the symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders (TJDs). TJDs affect the joint between the lower jaw and the base of the skull.

It has been estimated that approximately 20-30% of the adult population will experience a TJD at some point.

Symptoms usually last for a few months before getting better.

Read more about temporomandibular joint disorders.

Giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis)

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a condition in which medium and large arteries, usually in the head and neck, become inflamed. It usually affects adults over 60 years old.

Giant cell arteritis should be regarded as a medical emergency and you should contact your GP immediately if you suddenly develop:

  • a severe headache
  • jaw pain when eating
  • blurred or double vision
  • a sore scalp

Read more about giant cell arteritis.

Page last reviewed: 28/05/2013

Next review due: 28/05/2015


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

lightninuk30 said on 19 November 2014

I have been suffering headaches for years now,
I have taken advice from this I'm getting headaches on and off but nothing compared to what it was like, constant very hard to cope with,
this is day 7 not taking painkillers, feeling alot better in myself I think they were making me very ill,
I was taking them everyday for years to try take my headaches away and all along they was making them worse,
I will take painkillers when I have them but definitely try not to take them longer than a day if I can help it, I really don't want to go through that again,
I'm under the Dr trying to get to the bottom of my headaches at the moment, I personally think I suffer with cluster headaches and tension headaches, I have yet to find out, as I have had a few different things tested for lately and all come back normal.
I'm very pleased I found this page it has definitely helped clear up a few things for me
Thank you

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myahsmummy said on 21 January 2014

I get headaches everyday, they are not too painful I can just about deal with them. I'm not 100% sure what type of headache they are but it sounds like it could be tension headaches. Is it normal to get them all the time?

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inaction said on 28 April 2013

What would a doctor prescribe for cluster headaches? And for someone that gets headaches frequently and are quite intense?

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