Headache Q&A: Test Yourself

What do you know about headaches?
young woman holding head

You probably know someone who suffers from headaches — most of us do. But how well do you understand this common pain condition?

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Test your knowledge of headaches with our Q&A. Neurologist Cynthia Bamford, MD, provides the answers.

Q: What is the most common cause of absenteeism at work and school?

A: Headaches are the most common cause of absenteeism. Migraine sufferers lose more than 157 million work and school days annually because of headache pain.

Q: Which are the most common type of headache, tension, migraine or cluster headaches?

A: Tension headaches are the most common primary headaches, which are headaches not caused by another health problem. These headaches account for about 70-90 percent of all headaches diagnosed.

Tension headaches cause mild to moderate pain, and come and go over a long period of time. Tension headaches are not usually associated with sensitivity to light or noise.

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They can be either be chronic — occurring more than 15 days per month — or episodic, occurring less than 15 days per month.

Q: What is the second most common type of headache?

A: Migraines are the second most common primary headache. We do not know what causes migraine headaches, but we know that they are neurovascular in nature, which means they involve the nervous system and blood vessels. We also know that migraines are related to changes or to inherited abnormalities in the brain.

Migraines produce moderate to severe pain, often described as pounding, throbbing pain. They can last from four hours to three days, and are usually episodic. Migraines are associated with:

  • Sensitivity to light, noise or odors.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Stomach upset or abdominal pain.

Sometimes external factors, such as fatigue, foods, alcohol, bright lights and weather changes, can trigger migraine attacks.

Q: Which type of headache is most painful?

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A: Cluster headaches are the least common primary headache, but cause the most severe pain. Cluster headaches are described as causing intense, burning or piercing pain that may be throbbing or constant. The pain is so severe that most cluster headache sufferers cannot sit still and will often pace during an attack. It is located behind one eye or in the eye region and does not change sides.

“Cluster headaches” got their name because of the characteristic grouping of attacks. They occur one to three times per day during a cluster, which may last from two weeks to three months. The headaches may disappear completely for months or years, only to recur.

Q: Can headaches be hereditary?

A. Yes, headaches — especially migraines — tend to run in families. Children who have migraines usually have at least one parent who also suffers from the condition. Headaches also can be triggered by exposure to specific environmental factors in the family’s household. These include secondhand tobacco smoke, strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes and exposure to allergens (allergy-causing substances) or foods.

For some people, stress, pollution, noise, lighting and weather changes can trigger headaches. People with migraines may inherit abnormalities in certain areas of the brain and may tend to be affected by the migraine triggers mentioned above.

If you or someone you love suffers from episodic headache, speak with your primary care doctor . If headaches occur 15 or more days a month or are severe disabling headaches that have not responded to prescriptions, see a headache specialist.

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