Understanding headaches, migraines and when you should speak to your doctor

Icon Writers / 02 Sep, 2021

How common are headaches? How common are headaches?

Headaches are very common. They are so common that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 50-75% of adults worldwide will have experienced a headache in the last year.1

What are headaches?What are headaches?

Headaches can be defined as pain that is felt in any part of your head.

The pain may be mild or strong, sharp or dull, and can last for less than thirty minutes to as long as one week.

In adults, the most common types of headaches are tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches.

Tension headaches Tension headaches

Tension headaches, also known as tension-type or TTH headaches, are characterised by mild to moderate pain can be described as constant and tight or gripping. The pain is usually felt on both sides of the head and may last for up to a week. Tension headaches are often brought on by stress and may be relieved by movement or mild exercise.

They are generally more common in women than in men.

Tension headaches can be managed with over-the-counter pain medications (such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), light exercise, hot or cold packs, light massage, acupuncture or stress relief.

Migraines Migraines

Migraines refer to headaches that cause pulsating or throbbing pain. They may be felt on one side of the head only, rather than on both sides, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as visual disturbances (also known as an aura) or nausea and vomiting.

Migraines are three times more common in women than men and are known to run in families4.

In the days leading up to a migraine attack, some people may experience symptoms which include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Food cravings
  • Constipation
  • Increased urination
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

This is known as the prodrome phase of a migraine.

In the period after a migraine attack, some people may experience:

  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea

This is known as the post-drome phase of a migraine.

You should always speak with your doctor if your migraines become more frequent or change in nature. If you have never had a migraine before, it is important to see your doctor to ensure there are no other possible causes or underlying conditions and that you receive timely treatment. 

Cluster headachesCluster headaches

Cluster headaches are usually only felt on one side of the head, often in or around the area above the eye. They occur in a series of frequent attacks, lasting for weeks at a time. They are very painful and can awaken you in the night or early morning.

Cluster headaches are more common in men than women.

If your cluster headaches increase in frequency or change in nature, or it is the first time you’ve experienced a cluster headache, it’s important to speak with your doctor to identify if there are any underlying causes and ensure you receive the right treatment for your unique needs.

When should I be concerned about a headache? When should I be concerned about a headache?

Most headaches, such as the ones described above, are known as primary headaches. This means that they are not caused by something else, such as another health condition.

If the headache is caused by an underlying condition, it is called a secondary headache.

Some causes of secondary headaches are:

  • Sinus infection
  • Brain tumour
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
  • Concussion
  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis
  • Dehydration

Secondary headaches can be very serious.

It is important to seek urgent medical help if you have a headache with any of these symptoms:

  • Neck stiffness
  • A very high fever
  • Convulsions
  • Changes in speech or vision
  • A feeling of weakness or numbness in any part of the body
  • A headache that occurs after a head injury
  • A headache that occurs after straining, sneezing or coughing
  • A headache that doesn’t go away

If you suffer from headaches or migraines, Icon Health Screening can help give you peace of mind.

Whether you desire screening to identify any underlying problems or health conditions or support to receive personalised pain management that addresses your needs, we are here to help you achieve better health through the prevention and management of your headaches or migraines.


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. World Health Organization. Atlas of headache disorders and resources in the world 2011. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241564212
  2. Ho KH, Ong BK. A community-based study of headache diagnosis and prevalence in Singapore. Cephalalgia. 2003 Feb;23(1):6-13. doi: 10.1046/j.0333-1024.2002.00272.x. PMID: 12534573.
  3. Vivien Min Er Lee1, MBBS, Lai Lai Ang2, MBBS, MMed, Derek Tuck Loong Soon3, PhD, FRCP, Jonathan Jia Yuan Ong3, MMed, FRCP, Victor Weng Keong Loh1, MCFP, MHPE. The adult patient with headache. Singapore Med J 2018; 59(8): 399-406 doi: https://doi.org/10.11622/smedj.2018094
  4. Roy G Beran. Management of chronic headache. Australian Family Physician. Volume 43, No.3, March 2014 Pages 106-110
  5. World Health Organization. Fact Sheet Headache Disorders. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders
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