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HealthInfo West Coast-Te Tai Poutini

Headaches & migraines in adults

Ngā ānini upoko ki ngā pakeke

Headaches are very common in people of all ages.

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

You may get headaches during a stressful time in life, they may 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 do not have a serious cause and will go away over time. 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 with migraines are sensitive to light and they may feel nauseous 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.


You should get a headache checked straight away if you have any of the following:

You should seek non-urgent medical help if you have headaches often or have new headaches (especially if you are over 50). And if simple pain tablets are not working or if you are concerned about your headaches.

Diagnosing headaches & migraines

Your general practice team can diagnose most headaches and migraines by examining you and asking you about your symptoms. Most headaches do not need a brain scan unless there are unusual features.

Your general practice team will talk to you about possible causes for your headaches. They may ask you to keep a log of your headaches. Record the type, duration, frequency and if you needed pain relief.

Treating headaches & migraines

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

A group of medications called triptans may be used to treat migraines. These can stop a migraine if you take them very early, when the aura starts.

If your headaches or migraines are happening very often, your general practice team 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.

You may choose to see a physiotherapist skilled in assessing and treating headaches and migraines. They can check for causes such as neck issues and provide treatment.

Preventing headaches & migraines

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

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed October 2022.


See also:

Chronic (persistent) pain

Page reference: 52923

Review key: HIHMA-19071