Headaches and migraines

For most people, a headache happens occasionally and can be quickly cured with something to eat, a short rest or a couple of painkillers.

Most headaches and migraines are unpleasant but harmless and can be relieved with self-help measures and pharmacy painkillers. Only a few (around 5%) are a sign that something is seriously wrong. These more serious headaches are often accompanied by other warning signs. For example, a headache accompanied by a rash and a very high temperature could be meningitis.

Get medical advice urgently if your headache occurs suddenly and severely, especially after a blow to the head, or if it's accompanied by a fever or feelings of drowsiness.

Here's a guide to the different types of migraine and headaches and how to tackle them.

Migraines

Migraines affect more than 15% of the UK population

Migraines are much more than just a headache. The Migraine Action Association says that migraines are the most common neurological (nerve-related)condition in the developed world. They affect more than 15% of the UK population. Around two-thirds of migraines are in women. Migraines affect more people than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined.

Attacks, which can last from 4 to 72 hours, can be completely disabling, and can prevent people from carrying out their usual activities for up to three days. Even when they don't have symptoms, people affected may live in fear of the next attack.

There is no cure for migraines, but it is possible to control them with a range of treatments. However, what's successful for one person may not work for another, so it's important to keep trying different treatments until you find one that works for you.

Around 10% of people who have migraines also experience aura symptoms. These are disturbances that start 15 minutes to an hour before the headache. They can include blind spots, flashing lights, zigzag patterns, tingling, pins and needles, or numbness in the limbs.

Read more about migraines.

Abdominal migraines

Abdominal migraines often occur in children. They cause recurrent attacks of abdominal pain lasting for several hours. When the child reaches adolescence, this often changes to the more common migraine pattern.

Read more about headaches in children.

Hormonal migraines

Migraines in women are often linked to hormone changes. True menstrual migraines occur within two days either before or after the first day of a monthly period and at no other time.

Read more about hormone headaches.

Migraine triggers

Migraines are believed to be caused by the release of a chemical called serotonin into the bloodstream, resulting in changes in the brain. Exactly what causes this to happen is still a subject for research and debate. However, certain factors that can trigger attacks in susceptible people have been identified. These include:

  • emotional stress, such as anger, tension or shock
  • physical stress, such as overexertion or travelling
  • diet, such as infrequent meals, alcohol (especially red wine) or additives
  • environmental causes, such as supermarket lights, computer screens, smoking or loud noise
  • hormonal causes, such as puberty, menstruation or pregnancy
  • high blood pressure, eye strain or the use of sleeping tablets

Read about 10 surprising migraine and headache triggers.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a rare form of headache. They affect less than 1% of the UK population. They're often considered to be the worst type of headache because the pain is so intense. They usually occur around one eye.

Cluster headaches are more common in middle-aged men, but women can also have them. They affect people of all ages from four to over 80.

Attacks occur in clusters of up to eight per day, usually for a duration of six to eight weeks. They then may not occur again for months or even years.

Read more about cluster headaches.

 

Chronic daily headaches

These are estimated to affect 3-4% of the UK population and occur on more than 15 days each month. They can be caused by tension, muscle contraction and taking too many painkillers.

Tension headaches

These headaches affect both sides of the head and cause a constant feeling of pressure or a tight band around the head.

Read more about tension headaches.

Painkiller headaches

Painkillers can help relieve headaches, but it's possible to develop a tolerance to them, causing rebound headaches known as painkiller headaches. The condition can develop with overuse of any type of painkiller.

If you take medication to treat headaches on more than two days a week for three months or more, you're at risk of painkiller headaches. Consult your GP to identify the cause of the headaches and discuss other treatment options.

Read more about painkiller headaches.

Getting help for headaches

Most headaches and migraines can be treated with help and support from a GP. However, there are migraine clinics where you can receive specialist attention. Ask for a referral from your GP.

Find your local migraine and headache clinics.

Page last reviewed: 18/03/2014

Next review due: 18/03/2016

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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

ms_cellany said on 19 April 2013

There's no information about headaches due to dehydration.

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Tracey H said on 06 October 2012

I have been having migraine attacks since I was little girl,I am now 49. I have all the signs ,starting with kaleidoscope vision ,numbing and tingling left arm, numbing lip and tongue and then the worse head ache ever. As Im getting older the worse the head aches are getting. The DR has given me beta blockers this time and imigran . The only thing that ever worked for me was a wafer that you dissolves under the tongue ,but for some reason they won't let me have them again ,said they cost to much ?Ill give these Imigran a go and see if they are any good ? Fingers crossed !.

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kareng36 said on 20 September 2012

Hi Poppy33, ive had migraines on and off for the last 20 years. My migraines got worse and more frequent about 3 years ago and with the help of a very understanding GP, I am on medication now to help control this. The symptoms you have described are exactly what my migraines are like. I get the flicker in my eye (normally my right eye) and then the loss of sight. When i explain this to others, its like nothing is 3D anymore ( i know this sounds silly but when i get the aura everything looks flat with no defining edges) Its extremely scary as these can happen anytime, anywhere and without warning. Its at this point i have to get to a dark, quite room and, basically, just sleep off the symptoms. I awaken to a horrible headache, feeling sick etc. I am not a doctor but i would say that you really should speak to a doctor about this. Hopefully they can give you more advice. Good Luck xx

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Poppy33 said on 28 February 2012

Iv been getting migraines for about six months, having one or two a month. I get a uara where I feel my eyes start to wobble and it like I am looking through a Mirror. And then I get the headache, it's not that painfully at the moment, but it is very sceary, has I am not sure that it is migraines. Dose anyone expereance this

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