Secondary Headache: Overview and More

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A secondary headache is a headache that stems from an underlying medical issue that activates pain-sensitive regions in the head or neck. This type of headache differs from a primary headache, such as a migraine or tension headache.

Although secondary headaches only account for 2% of all headaches, it’s essential to recognize one because they can be serious or even life-threatening in some cases.

This article discusses what you should know about secondary headaches, including types, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and coping strategies.

Young woman touching bridge of nose to relieve headache while resting in bed

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Types of Secondary Headaches

Unlike primary headaches, such as cluster, tension, or migraine headaches, a secondary headache is any headache that arises from an alternative medical issue.

A wide range of conditions can cause a secondary headache, and they can range in pain from mild to debilitating and occur anywhere in the head or neck.

In other words, the type and severity of a secondary headache depend on the condition causing it.

Causes

Many different medical issues or other causes can trigger a secondary headache. In some cases, they can be a symptom of a serious health condition. There is a long list of secondary headache causes that range from mild to severe.

Some of the less serious causes of secondary headache include:

  • Hangover
  • Sinus infection
  • “Brain freeze,” also known as an ice cream headache
  • Insomnia
  • Dehydration

In some cases, a secondary headache can signal a much more serious health condition, such as:

Secondary headaches can also result from mental health issues, such as:

Symptoms

Symptoms of a secondary headache may be similar to those experienced during a primary headache. However, you may want to see if some other signs and symptoms point to another medical condition that may be causing a secondary headache.

Some symptoms that may point to a secondary headache include:

  • Having an abrupt headache with no warning
  • Having the worst headache of your life
  • Headaches in people younger than 5 years old or over 50
  • Pregnancy
  • Headaches with an abnormal physical exam
  • Headaches after a seizure or fainting
  • Headaches after strenuous physical activity
  • Headaches that present differently from prior recurrent headaches

If you are experiencing a headache of unknown cause or that seemed to show up without warning, consult your healthcare provider. They may recommend a physical examination or another diagnostic test to determine if there is an underlying medical condition.

Diagnosis

It is difficult to distinguish between primary and secondary headaches without an examination from your healthcare provider. They may want to do a physical exam or other diagnostic tests, such as:

Your healthcare provider may also look at additional information to determine whether you are experiencing a primary or secondary headache, such as:

  • History of family headaches
  • Physical exam history
  • Triggers, such as hormonal cycle, foods, or weather changes

An essential part of diagnosing secondary headaches is determining what the underlying condition causing them might be.

SNOOP Detection Tool

Healthcare providers will also use the SNOOP tool (which stands for systemic symptoms/signs and disease, neurologic symptoms or signs, onset sudden or onset after the age of 40 years, and change of headache pattern) to detect a secondary headache.

Treatment

Treatment for a secondary headache is determined by the condition that is causing it.

For example, treatment for a secondary headache caused by a sinus infection may include antibiotics to resolve the infection and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication for symptom management.

A secondary headache caused by chronic high blood pressure may require a higher level of intervention, such as high blood pressure medications, lifestyle changes, physical activity, weight loss, and abstaining from alcohol.

Talk to your healthcare provider about treatment for your medical issue that is causing a secondary headache to determine the right course of action for you.

Summary

A secondary headache is a headache that can originate from a variety of underlying medical issues that cause pain in the head or neck. They are much less common than primary headaches. However, they are essential to recognize because they can be serious or even life-threatening in some cases.

A Word From Verywell

No matter the cause, headaches are painful and can impact your quality of life. In some cases, a secondary headache can stem from a less serious medical issue, but in other cases, it can result from medical issues that require urgent care. Fortunately, help is available.

If you are experiencing a headache of unknown cause or that seemed to show up without warning, consult your healthcare provider. They can help determine the root cause of your headaches and provide treatment options.

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4 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.
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