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Contributions by Olivia Lizak

What is a Headache?

Headaches are a common medical condition characterized by pain in the head or neck area. They can vary in intensity, duration, and location and can be caused by various factors. About 96% of people experience a headache at least once in their life. Let's explore the different types of headaches, their causes, symptoms, and potential treatment options.

Primary Headache vs. Secondary Headache

Primary and secondary headaches are broad categories with distinct characteristics and underlying causes. Understanding the difference between them is essential for proper diagnosis and treatment. Let's delve into each type:

Primary Headache

Primary headaches are standalone medical conditions and not symptoms of an underlying health issue. They occur independently and are the main problem rather than a result of another condition. The exact cause of primary headaches is not always clear, but they are thought to be related to the overactivity or sensitivity of pain-sensitive structures in the head. Common primary headache types include:

Tension Headaches

These are the most common primary headaches, characterized by mild to moderate band-like pressure or tightness around the head.

Migraine Headaches

Migraines are recurrent, severe headaches, often with other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances (auras).


Cluster headaches are intense headaches that usually affect one side of the head and come in clusters, with frequent episodes over several weeks or months, followed by periods of remission.

Trigeminal Autonomic Cephalalgias (TACs)

This group includes severe, short-lasting headaches associated with autonomic symptoms like tearing, nasal congestion, and eye redness. Examples include cluster headaches and paroxysmal hemicrania.

Secondary Headache

Secondary headaches are symptoms of an underlying medical condition or injury. They are a warning sign that something else is wrong in the body. Various medical conditions and factors can trigger secondary headaches, and diagnosing and treating the underlying cause is crucial for effective headache management. Some examples of conditions that may cause secondary headaches include:

Head and Neck Injuries

Concussions, whiplash, or other traumatic injuries to the head and neck can lead to headaches.

Sinus Infections

Inflammation and infection of the sinuses can cause headaches.

Medication Overuse

Frequent or excessive use of pain relievers can lead to rebound headaches.

Brain Tumors or Lesions

Growths or abnormalities in the brain can cause headaches.


Certain infections like meningitis or encephalitis may present with headaches.

What's the difference between a headache and a migraine?

Headaches and migraines are related but distinct conditions. Migraine is a specific type of headache but differs from regular headaches in several key aspects. Here are the main differences between a headache and a migraine:


A headache is a general term used to describe any pain or discomfort in the head or neck region. It can vary in intensity, location, and duration and can be caused by various factors.

A migraine is a specific type of headache disorder characterized by recurrent, moderate to severe headaches that usually occur on one side of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light (photophobia), and sensitivity to sound (phonophobia).


Regular headaches may involve a dull, aching pain or pressure in different head areas. They typically do not present with additional symptoms beyond head pain.

Migraine headaches have a distinct set of symptoms beyond head pain. These can include pulsating or throbbing pain, visual disturbances (auras), tingling or numbness in the face or extremities, and changes in mood and cognition.


Most regular headaches last for a few hours to a day, but some tension headaches can persist for days.

Migraines are usually longer-lasting than regular headaches. They can last for several hours to up to three days or more, especially if left untreated.


Various factors, such as stress, fatigue, dehydration, hunger, or poor posture, can trigger regular headaches.

Migraines are often triggered by specific factors, which can vary among individuals. Common triggers include certain foods (e.g., aged cheese, chocolate), hormonal changes, bright lights, strong odors, alcohol, and changes in sleep patterns.


Regular headaches are generally milder in intensity compared to migraines and may not significantly affect daily activities.

Migraine headaches are more severe and can be disabling, leading to difficulty functioning and a need to rest in a dark, quiet room.


Regular headaches can occur occasionally or frequently, depending on the individual and underlying causes.

Migraines tend to be episodic and can occur with varying frequency, ranging from a few times a year to several times a month.

Common Types of Headaches

- Tension Headaches

- Migraine Headaches

- Cluster Headaches

- Sinus Headaches

- Cervicogenic Headaches

- Hormone Headaches

- Thunderclap Headaches

- Rebound Headaches

What Causes Headaches?

- Stress and tension

- Dehydration

- Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality

- Certain foods and drinks (e.g., alcohol, caffeine, processed foods)

- Sensory stimuli (e.g., bright lights, loud noises, strong smells)

- Hormonal changes

- Weather changes

- Medication overuse

- Medical conditions (e.g., sinus infections, head injuries)

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

Physical therapy can be a beneficial and non-invasive approach to help manage and alleviate certain types of headaches, particularly tension headaches and cervicogenic headaches. These types of headaches are often associated with musculoskeletal issues in the neck and shoulder region. Here are some ways in which physical therapy can help with headaches:

Muscle Relaxation

Physical therapists can use various techniques, such as manual therapy, stretching, and massage, to relax tense muscles in the neck, shoulders, and upper back. This can help reduce muscle tension that may be contributing to tension headaches.

Posture Correction

Poor posture, especially when sitting at a desk or using electronic devices for extended periods, can strain the neck and upper back muscles, leading to headaches. Physical therapists can teach proper ergonomics and posture, which can help reduce headache frequency.

Neck Mobility Improvement

Restricted neck movement can cause tension and irritation in the cervical spine, leading to headaches. Physical therapy exercises can help improve neck mobility and decrease stiffness, reducing the likelihood of cervicogenic headaches.

Strengthening Exercises

Weak muscles in the neck and upper back can contribute to headaches. Physical therapists can design specific strengthening exercises to target these areas, improving overall stability and reducing headache occurrences.

Manual Therapy Techniques

Hands-on techniques, such as joint mobilization and manipulation, can be used by physical therapists to address stiffness and misalignments in the cervical spine, which can alleviate cervicogenic headaches.

Education and Lifestyle Modification

Physical therapists can provide education on headache triggers and lifestyle modifications to avoid factors that exacerbate headaches. This may include stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, and advice on sleep and hydration.


Physical therapy modalities like heat or ice therapy, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and biofeedback may be used to complement the treatment plan and provide additional pain relief.

Not all headaches are related to musculoskeletal issues, and physical therapy might not be practical for headaches caused by other underlying conditions, such as migraines or cluster headaches. Therefore, a proper evaluation and diagnosis by a healthcare professional, such as a neurologist or physical therapist, are essential to determine the most appropriate treatment approach for your specific headache type.

If physical therapy is deemed suitable, a tailored treatment plan can be developed to address the underlying musculoskeletal issues and help reduce headache frequency and intensity. Schedule an appointment or consultation today to see if physical therapy!

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