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Migraines and Other Headaches

When Headaches Are Not MigrainesTension Headaches

Most headaches are not migraines. Probably the most common of all headaches is the tension headache. People used to call tension headaches stress headaches or muscle-contraction headaches. Although stress may play a role in the development of a tension headache, it is not the only cause.

Tension headaches often feel as if a belt or a piece of elastic has been pulled tightly around the scalp. Physical activity doesn't seem to make this pain any worse. The head doesn't throb as it would with a migraine, and the person doesn't usually vomit or feel nauseated. When a tension headache makes the person sensitive to bright lights and certain noises, it may be hard to distinguish from a migraine. In fact, some researchers believe that tension headaches are a less intense form of migraine. The headache can last from one hour to several days. Doctors classify tension headaches in two ways:

Episodic Tension Headaches

“Episodic” means repeatedly, or happening over and over. A doctor may classify your headaches in this category if you experience a couple of headaches most weeks but fewer than fifteen episodes a month. Most people with episodic tension headaches get relief from over-the-counter pain medications, ice packs to the head, naps, and/or relaxation exercises.

Chronic Tension Headaches/Chronic Daily Headaches

Imagine having a headache every day of your life. This kind of pain can really get to you. Those with chronic daily headaches have discomfort every day (or almost every day) for six months or longer. Over-the-counter pain relievers do not help. In fact, some pain medications can even make a headache worse, causing a “rebound headache.” A person with any kind of headache who takes too much pain medication can experience the rebound syndrome. When this happens, it is recommended that sufferers stop taking all pain medications.

Serious Headaches

We can divide headaches other than tension headaches into two categories, according to the cause, and whether or not the cause is life-threatening. Chances are you will never experience the causes of these types of headaches. They are serious but rare.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors cause many of the same symptoms as migraines. But over time, a brain-tumor headache will hurt more, last longer, and is not likely to go away. If you have never had a serious headache and suddenly experience this kind of pain, you should see a doctor right away. A headache accompanied by seizures, vomiting, or troubles with balance should be checked out.

Remember again that brain tumors are rare. Also, abrain tumor is not a death sentence. After treatment with surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation, many people with brain tumors go on to lead normal lives.


Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane (meninges) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. A bacteria or a virus causes this infection. One of the main symptoms of meningitis is a stiff neck. Other symptoms are a bad headache that doesn't go away fever, lack of energy or unconsciousness. Bacterial meningitis can be very serious, but treatment with specialized antibiotics usually cures the disease. Viral meningitis is usually not as serious as bacterial meningitis.


An aneurysm is a bulging or weak blood vessel. When an aneurysm leaks or bursts, it causes a hemorrhage, or severe bleeding. If a hemorrhage goes into or around the brain, the bleeding will cause great pain (a thunderclap headache). Also, as with meningitis, the bleeding will cause a stiff neck. If not treated by surgery, the aneurysm may cause unconsciousness or even death.

Severe Head Injury/Subdural Bleeding

A severe head injury from an accident, fall, or from physical abuse can also cause bleeding in the head. This can result in a bad headache. Subdural bleeding occurs between the underside of the skull and the brain. A surgeon will have to drain the hemorrhage. This condition is a medical emergency

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Medicine EncyclopediaMigraines and Other HeadachesMigraines and Other Headaches - When Headaches Are Not Migraines - Tension Headaches, Less Serious Headaches