Headaches are the most common neurological complaint seen in clinical practice, and can be incredibly disruptive to your life. Most of the time, headaches are ‘primary headaches’, meaning headaches that don’t have a known cause. Primary headaches are benign, meaning that although they may be unpleasant, they are not dangerous to our health. However, it is important to be aware of some ‘red flag’ symptoms of ‘secondary headaches’, headaches caused by more serious diseases.

Primary Headaches.

The two main primary headaches are tension-type headaches and migraine headaches.

Tension headaches are commonly described as feeling like a ‘tight’ or ‘gripping’ pressure on both sides, often people will say it feels like a rubber-band is wrapped around their forehead. The headache may be associated with blurred vision or nausea. Tension headaches are usually caused by stress, poor posture or eye strain. These headaches are best managed with lifestyle measures, such as rest, stress management, simple pain relief (eg Panadol), and ensuring that your workspaces are comfortable and ergonomic.

Migraines are typically described as ‘throbbing’ or ‘pulsing’, and usually are felt on one side of the head, often on the temple or behind the eye. They are often associated with nausea and vomiting, and bright lights and loud noises can feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes, migraines can be preceded by an ‘aura’, such as experiencing flashing lights, tingling or strange smells. Often migraines can be triggered by different things, such as a lack of sleep, certain smells, certain foods (commonly chocolate), alcohol, caffeine or stress. Migraines can be managed with simple pain relief, but if they are particularly disruptive your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to relieve the pain as well as other medications to try to prevent them from happening in the first place.

Other primary headaches include cluster headaches, which are particularly severe headaches felt behind the eye, and trigeminal neuralgia, which involves severe pain felt over the face.

Red Flags for Secondary Headaches:

Secondary headaches occur when there is an underlying disease causing symptoms of a headache. Sometimes these causes can be benign, but sometimes they can be quite serious (such as a tumour or an infection). There are certain aspects of a headache you should look out for and discuss with your doctor if they are relevant for you:

  • A new headache, or headache which is different to previous headaches, in adults (especially over 50 years old)

  • ‘Thunderclap’ headache: a headache which comes on very rapidly

  • Headaches which are worse when coughing, sneezing or using the toilet

  • Neurological symptoms: eg ”pins and needles” or muscle weakness

  • Fever and neck stiffness

  • Unintentional weight loss

If you have any of the above symptoms with your headache, it is important you discuss this with your doctor!

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, feel free to book an appointment with one of our friendly doctors by booking online or contacting us by phone on 8269 6000.


American Migraine Foundation. 2018. Headache “Red Flags”: When to See Your Doctor. [ONLINE] Available at: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/headache-red-flags-when-to-see-your-doctor/. [Accessed 06 May 2018].

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. 2018. RACGP – Management of chronic headache. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2014/march/chronic-headache/. [Accessed 06 May 2018].

State Government of Victoria. 2010. Migraine. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.health.vic.gov.au/edfactsheets/downloads/migraine.pdf. [Accessed 06 May 2018]

Queensland Government. 2016. Tension Headache. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.health.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/621362/ed-tension_headache.pdf [Accessed 06 May 2018]

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