Headaches Overview

A headache is a pain in the head from any cause.  Almost everyone has a headache at some point in life.  But, estimates indicate that between 40 and 50 million Americans suffer from chronic or recurrent headache.  Many of these attacks are severe enough to disrupt sufferers’ daily activities. An estimated 8 million people visit their doctors each year with headache complaints.

Chronic headache is serious because it can interfere with the quality of daily life and reduce human productivity.  It is a biological disorder, like diabetes, arthritis, or heart disease. Research has helped physicians and patients understand what happens in the body during a headache attack. This knowledge has led to new and highly effective treatments that make control possible triggers for most headache sufferers.

In the United States, headache may be the most common reason for people missing work or school.  Many other sufferers drag themselves to work and endure a day of decreased productivity. Migraine sufferers lose more than 157 million workdays to headache and related symptoms each year. Other varieties of headaches are responsible for another 2.8 million lost workdays.  Time lost from work and resulting medical expenses due to headaches are estimated to cost American industry $50 billion each year. Americans spend more than $4 billion each year on over-the-counter pain relief for headaches.


Headache pain may be confined to a single area, or may be felt in multiple areas of the head, face, mouth, throat, and neck. In all cases, headache pain originates in a network of nerve fibers in the tissues, muscles, and blood vessels located in the head and at the base of the brain. Brain tissue, which has no nerve fibers, is unreceptive to pain.

When stimulated by stress, tension, and other factors, the ends of these nerve fibers, or nociceptors, generate electrochemical signals that travel up the nerve network to the brain, where they are interpreted as pain occurring at the point of origin. Some of these neurological signals include natural painkilling compounds called endorphins. 


If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible:

  • An intense, severe headache that comes on quickly, without warning, especially if you normally do not have headaches
  • Sudden, severe headache if you suffer from kidney problems, heart disease, or high blood pressure
  • Headache with fever and stiff neck
  • A headache followed by a head injury, especially if the headache includes feelings of nausea, dizziness, or blurred vision
  • A headache accompanied by seizures
  • A headache accompanied by memory loss, confusion, loss of balance, slurred speech or blurred vision, or numbness in arms or legs

 None of these things is a sure sign of life-threatening illness, but you will feel relieved having them checked out.

A common fear is that the sudden onset of serious headaches may be the sign of a brain tumor. Headache is rarely the first sign of a brain tumor. A headache accompanied by seizures, a change in mental function, and vomiting could signal a neurological disorder such as a brain tumor. So, seek medical attention immediately following such episodes.