Chances are, you have headaches every now and then, but you may not have thought a lot about why they happen and what to do about them.

There are more than 200 different types of headaches. See Understanding Headaches

What causes a headache?

It's not always possible to pin down the reason for a headache, but these are some common culprits:

  • Skipping a meal
  • Being overtired or ill
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Logging long hours at the computer
  • Clenching your jaw
  • Eating a certain food

One thing you can't blame your headache on is your brain. The pain starts in the area near the brain—the muscles, nerves, and blood vessels—but brain tissue doesn't have nerve receptors to sense pain.

Headaches can creep up on you or develop quickly. Some people who get migraines get a visual warning of the pain to come—called an aura. Images of lights flashing or a tingling feeling may occur.

When should you worry?

All headaches are a pain, but some are an emergency. These danger signs should trigger a trip to the ER:

  • Worst headache of your life occurs suddenly
  • Breathing is a struggle
  • Speech is slurred or you can't move around normally
  • You have a stiff neck, fever, or feel disoriented
  • A head injury precedes the headache
  • You have eye or ear pain or can't see
  • Convulsions or loss of consciousness occurs
  • Unexplained vomiting is experienced

These could be signs of a stroke, aneurism, or spinal meningitis.

What's the most common headache?

Tension headaches are by far the most common type, accounting for around 90% of all headaches. This kind of headache may bring a dull and aching pain, affecting both sides of the head, or concentrated pain in the front of the face or head. Tension headaches sometimes last for several days, and are less painful than migraines.

See Tension, Migraine, and Cluster Headaches

How are migraines different?

Migraines, the second most common type of headache, put most people out of commission for hours—sometimes up to 72 hours. Extreme, throbbing pain is just one symptom; nausea, vomiting, and hypersensitivity to light and sound are also common.

People who often get migraines may notice that certain things seem to trigger them. It could be a change in weather, lack of sleep, missing a meal, or eating a specific food or food additive.

Who treats chronic headaches?

If you experience frequent or debilitating headaches, your first stop for treatment should be your primary care physician. Sharing a journal of headache symptoms—and any headache triggers you've noticed—may help the doctor decide on the best treatment.

See Headache Treatment and Prevention

Primary care physicians, neurologists, and pain management physicians often treat headaches, and you may be referred to other specialists if you have other medical issues. Headache specialists are available in some areas.

Sometimes making a change to the work environment or getting new glasses can ease your symptoms.