Understanding headaches and when to seek treatment

Understanding headaches and when to seek treatment

Headaches are extremely common. Almost everyone would have experienced headache at some point. It can occur in any part of the head, both sides of the head, or in one location.

The headache may be primary (nor related to any medical condition), or secondary (a result of an underlying medical condition). Most headaches are primary headaches. They usually get better on their own, or with the help of simple painkillers.

There are different types of headaches you may experience:

  • Tension headaches
  • Migraines
  • Cluster headaches

Tension Headache

Tension headaches are the most common form of headaches.

It may feel like a dull or squeezing pain that builds slowly, like a tight band placed around your head. You may feel mild to moderate pain in your forehead, temples, and the sides and back of your forehead. In severe cases, the headache may even make you feel restless and sleepless.

Some factors that may cause tension headaches include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Muscle strain
  • Neck ache
  • Poor posture
  • Lack of exercise

Treatment for tension headaches are available. Managing a tension headache is often a balance between fostering healthy habits, finding effective nondrug treatment and using medication appropriately.


A migraine can cause severe throbbing pain at the front or the sides of your head. It may occur on one side of your head at first, and gradually spread to both sides. The pain may also be accompanied with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound. Physical activity, such as walking, may worsen the pain.

Some may experience an aura accompanying their migraine headaches. An aura is a visual (e.g. seeing zigzag lines) or sensory (tingling face or limbs) disturbance that develops and disappears gradually. Lasting about 15 to 60 minutes, auras usually occurs before or during a migraine headache.

Several factors may trigger a migraine attack. These include:

  • Changes in environment
  • Stress
  • Eating certain foods
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Intense physical exertion
  • Fatigue
  • Exposure to bright lights, loud noises, or strong scents

Migraine causes aren’t fully understood, genetics and environmental factors appears to play a role. Changes in the brainstem and its interaction with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway, might be involved. Taking combination painkillers for more than 10 days a month or in higher doses can trigger serious medication-overuse headaches- when medication stops relieving pain. Always consult a doctor for optimal treatment plan.

Raffles Neuroscience Centre

Learn more about migraine headaches and how you can manage them.

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Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches usually cause the most pain. Fortunately, it is also rare. It usually occurs several times daily for weeks to months, before entering a remission period lasting from months to even years.

The cluster headache may occur in a pattern, striking at a specific time of the day. The pain intensifies quickly, reaching a peak within five to 15 minutes. You may experience a throbbing, pressing, penetrating, burning, or sharp pain, which lasts about 45 to 90 minutes.

The pain may be located on the area behind and around one eye, or one side of the forehead or temple. It can spread to the back of the head, neck and the shoulder. The pain may be so severe that you may have a runny nose or eye redness accompanying the headache. If the cluster headache occurs at night, you may even be woken up by the pain.

Diagnosing and Treating Headaches

Based on your type of headache and symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications to provide quick relief and / or reduce its frequency. You can also make simple lifestyle changes to reduce the intensity and frequency of your headaches, such as:

  • Maintaining regular sleeping hours
  • Resting
  • Taking pain medications
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating regular meals and drinking plenty of water
  • Avoiding known triggers for your headache
  • Managing stress levels
  • Drinking less caffeine and alcohol

If your headache occurs frequently or becomes so severe that it affects your lifestyle or cause concern, you will need to seek medical attention. The medical professional will run advanced diagnostic tests, such as MRI or CT scans, to identify the cause of your headaches.

Living with headaches can be difficult, and may even disrupt your daily living. At Raffles Neuroscience Centre, our neurologists work with an experienced team of health professionals to deliver quality treatment. A customised treatment plan will be made for you, which may include the use of minimally invasive treatments to improve recovery time and reduce post-procedural pain. With our help, you can reduce your headaches and improve your quality of life.