don't have to think very hard to figure out why you have a
headache. Maybe you've consumed red wine or cheese or lingered
in a smoke-filled room, all of which can trigger migraines. Or
perhaps you're tired from lack of sleep or stressed from a tough
day at work. Such circumstances can give rise to tension-type
headaches or migraines, the most common types of headache.
Types of headaches
Different types of headaches cause different types of
pain. The pain of tension-type headaches is usually a dull,
squeezing pain that may involve the forehead, scalp, back of
the neck and both sides ...
However, many other headaches are less
common and are brought on by a variety of factors that may
surprise you. The following headaches represent only a few of
the more than 150 types of headaches recognized by the
International Headache Society, which maintains a comprehensive
guide for classifying headache and facial pain.
In some cases, these headaches are
directly related to a specific action. They typically resolve
after the offending factor — for example, alcohol or ice cream —
is gone, and they usually have no lasting impact on your health.
However, some headaches can be symptoms of serious problems,
which need to be checked out by a doctor.
Primary cough headache
Coughing, sneezing, laughing or bending
over may cause this type of headache, most likely by increasing
blood pressure in the veins in your head. The headache typically
comes on suddenly and lasts for a few seconds to several
minutes. The pain is often described as sharp or stabbing and is
typically located on both sides of your head and at the back of
You're most likely to experience this
type of headache if you're age 40 or older and male — these
headaches affect roughly three times as many men as women. If
you experience such headaches, it's a good idea to see your
doctor — particularly if they're frequent, severe, long-lasting
or represent an increasing pattern.
Your doctor may recommend a magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) exam. This exam can help determine
whether you have a primary cough headache, which isn't serious,
as opposed to another sort called a secondary cough
headache. Secondary cough headaches can occur as a result of
serious problems, including brain tumors and brain
Primary exertional headache
You might experience an exertional
headache after prolonged physical exercise, such as
weightlifting, dancing, running, bowling or football. It's more
likely to occur if you're exercising in hot weather or at a high
Like the cough headache, these
headaches sometimes occur as a result of increased pressure in
your head, particularly if the exertion is from lifting weights.
While straining to heave a weight, you may inadvertently do
what's called a Valsalva maneuver, which is the term
for trying to exhale while holding your breath. This act — which
also can play a role in primary cough headaches — increases
pressure in blood vessels in your head. Exertional headaches
cause a throbbing pain that gradually builds in intensity and is
felt on both sides of your head. The pain can last from five
minutes to 48 hours.
Headaches after exertion can be a
benign issue, but they also can point to a serious underlying
cause, such as bleeding in the brain or a separation in the
lining of an artery in your brain. If you have an exertional
headache, see your doctor for an evaluation, particularly if
it's your first headache of this type.
Carbon monoxide-induced headache
Headache is a common symptom of carbon
monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas
that can poison you if you breathe too much of it. It reduces
your blood's ability to carry oxygen throughout your body,
including to your brain. Sources of carbon monoxide poisoning
might include an improperly vented gas heater, a charcoal grill
used indoors or a car running in an enclosed garage.
The sensation of the resulting headache
varies widely, though you may feel the pain — potentially
constant and dull in nature — in the front of your head. The
headache should go away within 72 hours after you stop breathing
the carbon monoxide. However, if you suspect you've been exposed
to a poisonous dose of the gas, immediately get into fresh air
and contact your doctor for a diagnosis.
External compression headache
This condition, sometimes known as
"swim-goggle headache" results from continuous pressure on your
forehead or scalp, such as from a tight hat, headband or — not
surprisingly — swim goggles. The pain is constant and hurts the
worst where the object is pressing on your head. A simple
solution relieves the pain: Remove the head wear causing the
pressure. If you leave the troublesome item on your head for too
long, your headache could turn into a migraine.
If you've ever felt the pain caused by
drinking too much alcohol the night before, you're not alone.
This malady, technically known as "delayed alcohol-induced
headache," is a pulsating pain that's felt in the front and on
both sides of your head. It may worsen when you move around.
Excessive drinking may cause these
delayed headaches through a variety of means. Alcohol contains
ethanol, a chemical that causes blood vessels to expand, which
can give you a headache. The ethanol may also cause dehydration,
which contributes to headaches. Ingredients called congeners,
which give many types of alcohol their flavor, also can cause
headaches. These are found in larger amounts in dark liquors,
such as brandy, tequila and whiskey, than in clear liquors such
as vodka and gin.
Ice cream headache
One of the few good things about an ice
cream headache is that it's often gone in the time it would take
you to say its medical name — "headache attributed to ingestion
or inhalation of a cold stimulus."
Well-known causes of this condition are
eating ice cream quickly or gulping a cold drink. Inhaling cold
air can cause them, too. The headache feels like a sharp,
stabbing pain in your forehead. The pain peaks about 30 seconds
after it begins, and it's almost always gone in less than two
minutes. Cold material moving across your palate and the back of
your throat is what brings on this type of headache. One
possible mechanism is that this temporarily alters blood flow in
your brain, causing the brief headache. You may be more
susceptible to these if you're prone to migraines.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a food
additive that can trigger headaches. Since it's often found in
Chinese foods, an MSG-induced headache is sometimes referred to
as "Chinese restaurant syndrome," though the additive is also an
ingredient in many processed meats and tenderizers.
An MSG-induced headache typically
begins within 30 minutes of consuming the ingredient. The
headache is typically dull and constant and may be at the front
or both sides of your head. You're also likely to feel other
symptoms, including flushing and pressure in your face; a
burning feeling in your chest, neck or shoulders; dizziness; and
digestive discomfort. The headache typically goes away within 72
hours after eating a food containing MSG.
Post-lumbar puncture headache
This headache may occur after you have
a spinal tap, a procedure in which spinal fluid is drawn from
your back. Headaches resulting from a spinal tap — also known as
a lumbar puncture — are often accompanied by stiffness in the
neck, ringing in the ears, sensitivity to light, nausea, and
hearing impairment. This headache may come on when you stand up
and go away when you lie back down.
This type of headache generally
develops within a week after the spinal tap and typically
resolves within the week or after a doctor treats your
If you experience a severe headache
during intercourse, know that it usually isn't serious. One type
of sex-related headache brings a dull ache in your head and neck
that builds up during intercourse. These headaches are caused
when you tighten muscles in your neck and head during sex. A
second type appears as a severe, explosive pain during orgasm,
which may be due to increased blood pressure in the head caused
by expanding blood vessels. The pain may last anywhere from a
minute to a few hours. Sometimes taking a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) before sexual activity can
prevent the headache.
On occasion, a headache that occurs at
orgasm can be a sign of something more serious, like a
hemorrhage or stroke. If you experience this type of headache,
particularly the first time, contact your doctor to rule out
these other possible problems.
This headache really lives up to its
name, grabbing your attention like a boom of thunder. It's a
severe headache that reaches its maximum intensity in less than
a minute, then lasts for an hour to 10 days.
Occasionally these are nothing to worry
about, or they're the symptom of a relatively minor problem such
as an acute sinus infection. However, visit your doctor promptly
upon having one. In some cases the headache may be caused by a
bleeding in the brain, an unruptured aneurysm — a weakening in
an artery that may burst — or other blood vessel problems.
The next time you're squeezing your
aching temples with one of these unusual headaches, keep in mind
that what would be really unusual is if you managed to make it
through an entire year without having some sort of headache.
According to the American Council for Headache Education, almost
90 percent of men and 95 percent of women have at least one
during a year's time.
Knowing more about why these unusual
headaches develop — and how to treat them and avoid them — may
help you prevent your share of them.
Last Updated: 2/10/2004
(c) 2005 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and
Research. All rights reserved.