Headaches affect nearly everyone at some point, but when they become chronic, they can have a debilitating effect on your life. A headache occurs when nerves send pain signals to the brain in response to certain triggers. Many different things can trigger a headache, such as specific foods and beverages, physical exertion, and poor posture. In some cases, they can be a sign of an injury or underlying condition, such as stroke, cancer, or a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak.
There are over 150 different types of headaches, but these types are typically divided into two categories: primary and secondary headaches. The most common type of primary headache is tension-type headache, which is characterized by a sensation of pressure around the head that is felt most strongly in the forehead and temples. Other common types of primary headache are cluster headaches, new daily persistent headache (NDPH), and migraine.

Secondary headaches occur as a result of an underlying medical condition, such as a sinus infection. Most secondary headaches are not an indicator of a life-threatening illness or injury, but some, such as spinal headaches (caused by a CSF leak) and thunderclap headaches (caused by medical problems such as brain bleed or sudden increases in blood pressure levels), may necessitate emergency medical care.

How are different types of headaches diagnosed?

To diagnose your headache, your doctor will ask you questions about your headache history (such as the frequency and severity of the headaches), your medical history, your family’s medical history, and any foods, medications, or lifestyle habits that could be contributing to your symptoms. Your doctor may also perform physical and/or neurological evaluations, as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, to rule out underlying medical conditions that could be causing the headaches.

How are headaches treated?

Treatment for your headache depends on the type of headache you’re experiencing. For primary headaches, one of the most important aspects of treatment is identifying and minimizing triggers. Additionally, medications such as triptans, which affect how blood flows and how pain signals are transmitted in your brain, can help make certain types of primary headaches, such as migraines and cluster headaches, less severe and more manageable. While medication may also help reduce pain from secondary headaches, treatment focuses more on the underlying causes of these headaches.
The vast majority of headaches are nothing to worry about; even chronic headaches and migraines, while potentially very disruptive to your daily life, are rarely a sign of a life-threatening medical problem. However, if you’re experiencing regular or severe headaches or migraines, it’s still important to speak with a doctor about them. Jamaica Hospital Medical Center’s skilled neurology team can provide advanced, personalized care to diagnose and treat the cause of your headaches. To schedule an appointment with a Queens, NYC headache specialist, please email neuro@jhmc.org.