Symptoms of Common Primary Headache Disorders

Primary headaches are those that exist independently from any other medical condition. This is in contrast to secondary headaches, which are a result of an underlying medical issue or condition. The International Headache Society has classified over 150 different types of headaches, both primary and secondary. While there are rarer types of primary headache disorders, the three most common ones are migraines, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.

Let's take a closer look at common primary headache disorders and gain an understanding of what these headache disorders feel like and the symptoms associated with them.


Migraine Without Aura

Woman with migraine pinching her nose

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A migraine without an aura is a recurrent, debilitating neurological disorder that is the most common type of migraine. People with migraines have head pain that lasts anywhere from four to 72 hours and often have other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and sensitivity to sound. The pain of a migraine is generally throbbing and located on one side of the head (unilateral) but can occur on both sides as well.


Migraine With Aura

About 30 percent of people experience auras with their migraine attacks, which is usually a visual, sensory, or language disturbance that lasts anywhere from five minutes to one hour before the head pain of a migraine begins. While an aura can be an alarming experience, the symptoms of an aura are reversible.


Retinal Migraines

A retinal migraine, sometimes described as an ocular migraine, is a migraine variant that causes a visual disturbance in one eye. It's not very common but is sometimes confused with a migraine aura or erroneously diagnosed when something more serious is occurring, like a stroke.

Unlike a migraine aura which may cause vision changes in both eyes, the visual disturbance of a retinal migraine occurs in one eye and can range from blindness to bright flashes of light and color. These vision changes are followed by or accompanied by a migraine headache and are reversible.


Menstrual Migraines

For many women, menstruation is a migraine trigger, and menstrual migraines are often more severe, last longer, and are more resistant to treatment than usual migraines. These migraines can begin about two days prior to menstruation. They are believed to be triggered by the natural decline of estrogen in a woman's body.


Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headaches cause a dull aching pain that people describe as a band around their heads. Sometimes the pain radiates to the neck area. Common triggers of these headaches include sleep deprivation, stress, and not eating on time.

Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish migraines from tension headaches. One difference is that tension headaches are not associated with nausea or vomiting or an aura. They also can last longer—up to 7 days—and are not aggravated by everyday physical activity (walking), as migraines commonly are.


Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are so named due to their frequent occurrence in clustered time periods, lasting weeks or months. They often strike with such regularity that they can be predicted with pinpoint accuracy by those who endure them. While referred to as "suicide headaches," cluster headaches are quite rare, affecting less than 1 percent of the population. But for these few individuals, the potent pain—often described as a burning or piercing pain around the eye or temple—can be debilitating and impair a person's daily functioning and quality of life.


Abdominal Migraine

Children can get migraines too and sometimes it feels like pain in their abdomen, as opposed to head pain. This pain is often dull and may be difficult for a child to describe. It's often associated with nausea, vomiting, a loss of appetite, and/or paleness.

Abdominal migraines are a form of functional abdominal pain, meaning that other sources of abdominal pain, like the stomach or intestinal infections or inflammatory diseases, need to be ruled out first.

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