When Your Head Hurts


4 mins read

All you need to know about 2 common types of primary headaches.

Most of us are familiar with the painful sensation of a headache. They affect people of all ages and shapes and sizes. In fact, headaches are so ancient and prevalent throughout history that they have been documented from as early as 7000 BC!

However, did you know that there are actually two different categories of headaches? There are secondary headaches which are caused by another condition (e.g. hangovers, dehydration, strokes, etc.), but 90%-95% of headaches are primary headaches, which are the condition. That means that pain is not caused by an underlying illness or disease.

In our two-part series, “When Your Head Hurts”, we focus on two of the most common types of primary headaches: the tension-type headache, and the migraine headache. Stick with us to find out more about their causes, symptoms and treatment methods.

Causes of Primary Headaches

Source: TedEd

Ironically, as common as headaches are, their causes remain largely unknown. However, scientists have theorised that they could be caused by changes in serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates pain messages moving through the trigeminal nerve pathway, the major pathway for pain arising from the face, eyes nose, sinuses, blood vessels, and covering of the brain. Endorphins, on the other hand, are natural pain-relieving chemicals that your brain and spinal cord produce.

Change in these chemicals could be caused by:
• Stress
• Anger
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Fatigue
• Poor posture
• Lack of exercise
• Buxism (teeth clenching/grinding)

Symptoms of Tension-type Headaches

Source: TedEd

The tension-type headache is the most common type of primary headache. It is recognised by the feeling of a dull, squeezing pain that builds slowly, much like the tightening sensation of a small band or hat around your head. The pain is mostly in the following regions:

• Forehead
• Temples
• Sides and back of the head
• Back of the neck

Symptoms of Migraine Headaches

Source: TedEd

Migraine headaches are a severe, recurring primary headache. It affects people of all ages, though especially those between 20 and 50 years old. It also affects twice as many women as men. If left untreated, migraine headaches can last between four hours to three days for adults.
The typical symptoms of a migraine are as follows:

• Throbbing pain in one or both sides of the head
• Nausea, sometimes vomiting
• Sensitivity to light, sounds and smells

Source: TedEd

Additionally, 15% of adults experience an aura with their migraine headaches. An aura is a visual or sensory disturbance that develops gradually and disappears gradually. It usually lasts for about 15 to 60 minutes. A migraine aura can include any of the following sensations:

• Flickering lights and spots of light
• Shimmering geometric patterns or zigzag lines even with closed eyes
• Slowly spreading blind spots or blurred areas in the vision
• Tingling sensations in the face and upper limb
• Difficulty with speech and word-finding

Click here for our second part of the series – 7 Ways to Head Off Primary Headache Pain!


1. RafflesMedicalGroup. (2018, June 26). Headaches: An Overview.
2. What causes headaches? – Dan Kwartler. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2018, from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/what-causes-headaches-dan-kwartler.

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