Symptoms of Common Primary Headache Disorders

Primary headache symptoms occur independently, not as the result of another medical issue. While some symptoms of primary headache disorders differ depending on the type, many overlap. Symptoms can range from throbbing head pain and vision changes to nausea, light sensitivity, and more.

Letting your doctor know exactly what you are experiencing can help them narrow down which type of primary headache you may have. The three most common primary headaches to cause symptoms are migraines, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.

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What Is a Retinal Migraine?

Migraine Without Aura

Woman with migraine pinching her nose

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A migraine without an aura is the most common type of migraine. It causes moderate to severe head pain that appears without warning and can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. It usually happens in the morning, often when you first wake up.

Symptoms include:

  • Throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head (unilateral)
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and odors

Migraine With Aura

About 25 to 30% of people with migraines experience auras. These are visual, sensory, or language disturbances that start anywhere from five minutes to one hour before the head pain begins and usually last about an hour.

Symptoms can include:

  • Throbbing pain in the head, often unilateral
  • Vision changes, including sparks, flashing or bright lights, dots, or zigzags
  • Losing part of your vision for a short period of time
  • Trouble speaking
  • Unusual or numb sensation on one side of the body
  • Tingling in the hands, fingers, body, or face

Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headaches, also called muscle contraction headaches, are the most common type of headaches. There are two kinds of tension-type headaches: episodic and chronic.

Episodic tension-type headaches happen between 10 and 15 days a month and can last from 30 minutes to several days.

Chronic tension-type headaches happen more than 15 days a month for at least three months. The pain can last days or months and is often more severe than episodic headaches.

Symptoms of tension-type headaches include:

  • Mild or moderate pain on both sides of your head that feels like you have a band around your head
  • Pain that radiates to the neck
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are usually the most painful primary headache. They cause severe, sudden pain that usually happens at the same time of day or night for several weeks. Symptoms can last up to three hours. They often happen at night and may cause you to wake up from sleep.

Cluster headaches are typically less frequent than migraines, usually appearing about twice a year. Because they often happen in the spring and fall, they are sometimes mistaken for allergies.

Symptoms include:

  • Unilateral pain in the head that can be around or behind one eye
  • Red or swollen eye or nose on that affected side
  • Agitation
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and smell

Abdominal Migraine

Children can get migraines, too, and sometimes it feels like a stomachache instead of head pain. The attacks can last one to 72 hours. If you have abdominal migraines as a child, you’re likely to have migraines as an adult.

Symptoms include:

  • Stomachache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Looking pale or flushed

A Word From Verywell

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor. While you may feel confident that what you are experiencing closely matches one of the above descriptions, only your doctor can give you an accurate diagnosis. Some symptoms of primary headaches can overlap, and a doctor can help you determine which type you have so you get the treatment and relief you need.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Headache: Hope Through Research. Updated December 31, 2019.

  2. American Migraine Foundation. Understanding Migraine with Aura. Updated July 6, 2017.

  3. National Headache Foundation. Abdominal Migraine