Symptoms of a Headache

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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.

Terrible headache.
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Frequent Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic details in full the symptoms that differ for the types of primary headaches: migraine, tension headache, and cluster headache.

Migraine

These are the most frequent symptoms of a migraine, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Constipation
  • Mood changes, from depression to euphoria
  • Food cravings
  • Neck stiffness
  • Increased urination
  • Fluid retention
  • Frequent yawning
  • Aura symptoms that include vision loss, seeing various shapes or bright spots or flashes of light, experiencing pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg, weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body, and difficulty speaking.

During a migraine "attack," the Mayo Clinic reports further symptoms that can include pain on one side or often on both sides of the head, throbbing or pulsing pain, sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch, and nausea and vomiting.

Tension Headache

A tension headache often has these symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Dull, aching head pain
  • The sensation of tightness or pressure along the forehead or on both sides of the back of the head
  • Tenderness in the scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles

There are two types of tension headaches: episodic and chronic, according to the Mayo Clinic. While episodic headaches can last from a half-hour to a week, a chronic headache lasts for hours. Recurring episodic tension headaches can eventually develop into chronic tension headaches.

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache has these symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Acute pain most often behind or around one eye that can transfer to areas of the face, head and neck
  • One-sided pain
  • Restlessness
  • Excessive tearing
  • Redness of the on the affected side
  • Stuffy or runny nose on the affected side
  • Forehead or facial sweating on the affected side
  • Pale skin or flushing on the face
  • Swelling around the eye on the affected side
  • Drooping eyelid on the affected side

The Mayo Clinic reports that migraine-like symptoms, including sensitivity to light and sound, can also occur with cluster headaches. 

Rare Symptoms

There are rare symptoms associated with migraine subtypes, according to WebMD:

  • Hemiplegic migraine: hemiplegic migraine, which is often hereditary, mimics a stroke, with one side of the body becoming very weak or temporarily paralyzed.
  • Abdominal migraine: An abdominal migraine, which occurs more often in children than adults, is mostly felt behind the belly button and remains for anywhere between two and 72 hours.
  • Ocular migraine: An ocular migraine occurs in the retina and can cause flashes of light, seeing stars, or blind spots. This type of migraine can also cause temporary speech and motor skill impairment.
  • Migraine with brainstem aura: This type of migraine is similar to a hemiplegic migraine minus muscle weakness. Some symptoms of this migraine subtype include trouble comprehending conversations, ringing ears, ataxia, and slurred speech.
  • Vestibular migraine: This type of migraine causes vertigo in the inner ear, creating imbalance and dizziness.

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 Healthcare Provider

The Mayo Clinic reports you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider if your headaches cause any of the following symptoms:

  • Happen more often than usual
  • Become more severe than usual
  • Become worse and are not alleviated by appropriate use of over-the-counter drugs
  • Stop you from your daily activities, including working, sleeping, or tending to normal activities
  • Are uncontrollable, bringing on distress that calls for better treatment options

If you are over age 50 and you have just started getting headaches, see your practitioner, 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 healthcare provider. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are types of headaches?

    Four types of headaches are migraines, tension headaches, sinus, and cluster headaches. 

  • What are the symptoms of a migraine?

    Migraine pain is usually pulsing or throbbing and focused on one side of the head. A migraine can also cause nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and an increased sense of smell. Vision changes, called an aura, can also occur with a migraine. 

  • What are the four phases of a migraine?

    Migraine headaches go through four phases: 

    • Prodrome can last three hours to several days. During this phase, you may experience problems concentrating, irritability, nausea, increased urination, and muscle stiffness. 
    • Aura can last five minutes to an hour. You may see flashing dots or lights, numbness or tingling skin, tinnitus, tiredness, and a tender scalp. 
    • Headache from migraine can last four to 72 hours with classic migraine symptoms.
    • Postdrome is also described as a migraine hangover. Difficulty concentrating, depression, fatigue, and confusion are common symptoms. Some people may experience euphoria during this phase. 
  • What does a cluster headache feel like?

    Cluster headache pain has been described as intense burning, piercing, or stabbing pain centered behind one eye and radiating to the forehead, temple, nose, and gums. Cluster headaches usually last 30 to 45 minutes and can recur up to eight times a day for weeks or months.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Carbaat PAT. Headache: classification and diagnosis. NTvT. 2016;123(11):539-544. doi. 10.5177/ntvt.2016.11.16122. Published November, 2016.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Migraine headaches. Updated March 3, 2021.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Cluster headaches. Updated February 4, 2021.

Additional Reading
  • 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.