Unusual headaches

By MayoClinic.com

Sometimes you 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

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 your skull.

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 malformations.

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 altitude.

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.

Hangover headache

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-induced headache

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 spinal-fluid leak.

Sex headache

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.

Thunderclap headache

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.

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Last Updated: 2/10/2004
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