A headache (also known as cephalalgia) is one of the most common medical problems: you can hardly find a person who has never had a headache.
However, we often forget that a headache is not a disease; it is a symptom, and a non-specific one at that. It might be caused by a great variety of medical conditions that range from practically harmless to life-threatening.
There are more than 200 hundreds types of headache that can be classified according to various criteria. It is very important to determine the type of your headache correctly in order to find out its reason and cure it. Let us take a closer look at different headache classification systems.
All headaches split into two large groups: primary headaches and secondary headaches. The most common type of primary headache is a tension headache (also known as a tension type headache). Other primary headache disorders are migraine, cluster headache, trigeminal neuralgia (prosopalgia), and hemicrania continua.
Secondary headache disorders may be caused by many problems. Some of these are not harmful, such as medication overuse headache or cervicogenic headache. But a number of secondary headaches may cause long-term damage or even be life-threatening. Take a look at the list of the so-called “red flag” symptoms. These symptoms mean that a headache needs a further investigation by a specialist.
- thunderclap headache (a sudden-onset and severe headache);
- a different and new headache in a person over fifty years old;
- mental confusion;
- inability to move a limb;
- headache that worsens when you change posture;
- headache that wakes you up;
- visual abnormalities or vision loss;
- pain in the jaw or ear while chewing;
- neck stiffness.
To cut a long story short, if your headache is accompanied by any unusual symptoms (or is unusual itself) you should consult a specialist as soon as possible.
There are more detailed classifications of headaches. The International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD) was published by the International Headache Society. The current version of the classification (ICHD-2) was published in 2004. It is used as the official classification by the WHO. ICHD is an in-depth hierarchical classification that uses numeric codes for different types of headache-related disorders and provides explicit diagnostic criteria.
The National Institutes of Health classification of headaches is not so detailed and elaborate. The NIH classification singles out five types of headache:
- vascular (migraine, toxic headache, cluster headaches);
- myogenic/muscular (e.g. tension headache);
Inflammatory and traction headaches are symptoms to other health disorders.
Why is it important to be aware of the types of headache? We have already mentioned that headaches may be caused by serious diseases. However, sometimes symptoms are not enough do determine the type and cause of the headache. In such as case you may need a medical examination.