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Headache is one of the most common health-related conditions, with around 15 per cent of us taking pain-relieving medication for a headache at any given time. It is likely that nearly all of us will experience headaches during our lifetime. People of any age can be affected, but people between the ages of 25 and 44 years are more likely to report having a headache. There are different types of headaches and many different causes, which explains why the condition is so common. Most headaches have more than one contributing factor. Some of the more common triggers for headache are lifestyle related, such as poor diet, stress, muscle tension, and lack of exercise. Serious underlying disorders, such as brain tumours, are rarely the cause of headache, although persistent headaches should always be investigated by a doctor. Headache can be classified into two broad categories: primary and secondary. Examples of primary headache include cluster and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are triggered by an underlying disorder – such as infection, injury or a tumour – and are a side effect of the main illness.


You feel pain when various structures of your head are inflamed or irritated. These structures include:

  • The muscles and skin of the head
  • The nerves of the head and neck
  • The arteries leading to the brain
  • The membranes of the ear, nose and throat
  • The sinuses, which are air-filled cavities inside the head that form part of the respiratory system.
  • The sensation of pain can also be ‘referred’, which means that pain occurring in one area can transmit the feeling of pain to an area nearby. An example is the referred pain of headache arising from a sore neck.


Anything that stimulates the pain receptors in a person’s head or neck can cause a headache, including:

  1. Stress
  2. Muscular tension
  3. Dental or jaw problems
  4. Infections
  5. Diet
  6. Eye problems
  7. Hormonal influences
  8. Medications
  9. Disorders of the ear, nose or throat
  10. Disorders of the nervous system
  11. Injury to the head, neck or spine
  12. High blood pressure
  13. Poor posture – puts unnecessary strain on the muscles of the back and neck
  14. The hangover from abuse of alcohol or drugs
  15. Temperature – extremes of heat or cold
  16. Dehydration – affects blood pressure
  17. Noise – especially loud noises
  18. Temporal arteritis – inflammation of the artery at the temple, most common in elderly people
  19. Arthritis
  20. Meningitis.