Symptoms of a Headache

In This Article

The symptoms of a headache go beyond just head pain. For some people, it's those other symptoms—like nausea, vision changes, or sensitivity to light—that cause the most discomfort and distress. Though many symptoms overlap from headache type to headache type, sometimes making a firm diagnosis challenging, others can be more distinguishing in that regard.

Headaches that result from an underlying medical condition are called secondary headaches. Since those can have a myriad of related symptoms, all of which hinge on the main diagnosis, it's best to review to symptoms of primary headaches—those that occur on their own.

Frequent Symptoms

Symptoms differ for the types of primary headaches: migraine, tension headache, and cluster headache.

Migraine

These are the most frequent symptoms of a migraine:

  • Throbbing or pulsating head pain, usually on one side of the head, but may be on both
  • Pain is worse with physical activity
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Sensitivity to sound (phonophobia)
  • Premonitory phase that begins up to two days before the migraine and is associated with emotional changes, yawning, urinary frequency, fluid retention, stiff neck, feeling thirsty, and/or having food cravings
  • Aura symptoms, like vision changes, numbness and tingling, dizziness, confusion, and/or language problems (e.g., difficulty finding words)
  • Increased sense of smell
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional distress
  • Postdrome phase characterized by fatigue, irritability, or euphoria

Tension Headache

A tension headache often has these symptoms:

  • Aching, tightening, or pressure sensation on both sides of the head, starting at the forehead
  • Sense of fullness in the head
  • Head pain lasts 30 minutes to seven days
  • Head pain that usually starts at some point during the day, increases slowly, and then remains stable
  • Radiation of pain to neck and/or shoulders
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensitivity to light or sound, but not both
  • Pain that does not worsen with physical activity, as in migraines

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache has these symptoms:

  • Severely painful headache usually centered around the eye or temple (often described as piercing, like a knife)
  • Headache occurs in short bursts (i.e., 45 to 90 minutes)
  • Runny nose on the same side as the head pain
  • Watery eye on the same side as the head pain
  • Swelling of the face on the same side as the head pain
  • Swelling of the eyelid on the same side as the head pain
  • Facial flushing or sweating
  • Agitation, restlessness

Migraine-like symptoms—nausea, aura, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound—may also occur.

Rare Symptoms

There are rare symptoms associated with migraine subtypes:

  • Paralysis (usually of one arm): This can indicate a hemiplegic migraine—a headache type with a strong genetic link.
  • Stomachache is associated with abdominal migraines, which occur more often in children than adults.
  • Eye issues, such as double vision, blurred vision, a droopy eyelid, or an obvious inability to move one eye can indicate an ophthalmoplegic migraine.
  • Aura alone: Silent migraine has no headache, but does have a migraine aura.

In these subtypes, the unusual symptoms are the most prominent aspect of the migraine episode.

Complications

The most common complications of headaches are not due to the headaches themselves, but rather treatment of them. Medication side effects can range depending on what drugs are used. For example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can cause stomach pain and gastrointestinal bleeding.

One common complication is a medication-overuse headache (or rebound headache), which can happen if you take painkillers too frequently. This is a serious headache that must be treated by removing the medication. However, for some types of medication, this can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

In terms of migraine-related complications, there are several that stem from the condition itself:

When to See a Doctor

You should make an appointment with your doctor if your headaches:

  • Are waking you from sleep
  • Get worse in the morning
  • Aren't responding to usual remedies
  • Last for more than a few days
  • Change in pattern, intensity, and/or frequency

If you are over age 50 and you have just started getting headaches, see your doctor, regardless of the above.

Emergency Attention

You might need emergency medical attention if:

  • You are experiencing your first severe headache or, if you often get headaches, the "worse headache of your life"
  • The headache comes on explosively
  • Signs of a stroke are also present (e.g., slurred speech, vision changes, problems moving your limbs, confusion, memory loss)
  • You have a fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting
  • You have had a head injury
  • The headache comes on after vigorous physical activity

A Word From Verywell

If you have a headache and are unsure about the trigger or diagnosis, be sure to talk with your doctor. You may be able to get better relief and learn how to prevent a recurrence and complications. While a headache may be one of your typical pattern, it could also signal a new medical problem.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Cluster Headache. American Migraine Foundation.

  • Tension-type Headache. American Migraine Foundation.

  • Headaches—Danger Signs. MedlinePlus.

  • Buchholz, David & Reich, Stephen G (foreword). Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program For Taking Charge of Your Pain. New York: Workman, 2002.
  • Chowdhury D. Tension type headache. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Aug;15(Suppl 1):S83-S88.