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HealthInfo Canterbury

Headaches & migraines in adults

Headaches are very common in people of all ages.

A headache may be in one small area, or spread around the whole head. People describe headaches in various ways. A headache can be throbbing, sharp, dull, or piercing.

Most headaches go away with simple pain relief. They may occur during a stressful time in life, be related to poor sleep, or be due to a viral illness. Some headaches come from tooth, jaw, sinus, neck, or eyesight issues. Most headaches don't have a serious cause, though occasionally they can be part of a more serious illness.

Migraines are a distinctive type of headache. Migraines can feel more severe than headaches. Often people are sensitive to light, and they may feel nauseated or vomit. Some people have an aura which is a sensation that occurs before the headache symptom. An aura may occur as a series of flashing lights or zigzags over your vision, blurring, or even loss of vision. Migraines can last several days, and if bad, can be very disabling.

Headaches and migraines can cause a lot of pain and distress. There are some effective treatments for stopping headaches or migraines from happening.

Preventing headaches

Often, there's no clear cause for a headache, so it can be hard to prevent them. Headaches can be caused or made worse by a number of triggers so the following things may be helpful:

Diagnosing headaches

It's important to get medical help if you have any of the following symptoms:

Most headaches and migraines can be diagnosed by taking a history and examination. Most headaches don't need a brain scan, unless there are any unusual features.

Your doctor will talk to you about possible causes for your headaches. Many headaches don't have an underlying cause and will go away over time.

They may ask you to keep a log of your headaches. Record the type, duration, frequency, and if you needed pain relief.


Common medications for occasional headaches are paracetamol or anti-inflammatories. But be aware, if you are using these more than three or four times a week over a few weeks, they can cause a type of headache called a medication over-use headache.

Medications which may be used to treat migraines are triptans. These can stop a migraine if taken very early, when the aura starts.

If your headaches or migraines are happening very often your GP might talk to you about going onto a daily preventative medication. It can sometimes take a while to find a medication that works for you.

Your GP might suggest that you see a physiotherapist. The physiotherapist will check if neck, muscle, jaw or breathing problems are causing your headaches.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed September 2019.

See also:

Chronic (persistent) pain

Page reference: 52923

Review key: HIHMA-19071