Headaches are extremely common – most people have a headache at some time in their life. Most headaches disappear on their own with a little time, or with the help of mild pain relievers. Although most headaches are mild and temporary annoyances, some people have headaches that are so severe they need to consult a doctor for pain relief.
Children can also have headaches, some well before they reach the age of 10. Research shows that headaches are more common in boys before puberty, but that trend is reversed after puberty. Adult women experience more headaches than adult men, and they're often linked to a woman's menstrual cycle. With advancing age, both women and men tend to have fewer, less severe headaches.
Headaches come in various forms: tension, migraine, sinus, and cluster headaches. In a small number of cases, headaches may signal a more serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.
Headaches can be triggered by a variety of factors. The most common cause of headaches is prolonged tension or stress. These are called tension headaches or muscle-contraction headaches. Virtually everyone suffers from this at some time. Muscles in your scalp, neck, and face tighten and contract, causing spasms and pain.
Psychological factors such as anxiety, fatigue (e.g., eyestrain), and stress (e.g., long periods of concentration) as well as mechanical factors such as neck strain (e.g., working on a computer for prolonged periods) are often the culprits behind a typical tension headache.
Migraines are generally more severe and can be debilitating. The cause of migraines is not known but many trigger factors are recognized. These include hormonal changes (during a woman's menstrual cycle), certain foods (e.g., chocolate, aged cheeses), beverages (e.g., red wine), strong odors, lack of sleep, and even stress. It is not uncommon to experience mixed tension-migraine headaches.
Sinus headaches are less common than people think. Many people with sinus headaches actually have migraine headaches. They can occur after a bout of upper respiratory infection, such as a cold. Along with the headache, people often have a runny or stuffy nose. Sinus headaches are caused when bacteria invade and infect the nasal sinuses.
Cluster headaches are a relatively uncommon type of headache. They more often affect men, run in families, are strongly associated with cigarette smoking and tend to occur in clusters over a few days, weeks, or months with long headache-free periods lasting from months to years. In some cases, they are triggered by alcohol. The cause is not known.
So-called "ice pick" or primary stabbing headaches are severe headaches that occur suddenly, causing a few seconds of intense pain at a small, localized spot. The exact cause of these headaches is unknown, but they are usually not due to a serious problem.