How are headaches classified?

There are more than 200 types of headaches. Some are harmless and some are life-threatening. The description of the headache and findings on neurological examination, determine whether additional tests are needed and what treatment is best.

Headaches are broadly classified as “primary” or “secondary”.┬áPrimary headaches are benign, recurrent headaches not caused by underlying disease or structural problems. For example, migraine is a type of primary headache. While primary headaches may cause significant daily pain and disability, they are not dangerous. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying disease, like an infection, head injury, vascular disorders,brain bleed or tumors. Secondary headaches can be harmless or dangerous. Certain “red flags” or warning signs indicate a secondary headache may be dangerous.

Headaches classified
Headaches classified

In 2005, the International Headache Society released its latest classification system for headache. Because so many people suffer from headaches and because treatment sometimes is difficult, it was hoped that the new classification system would help health care professionals make a specific diagnosis as to the type of headache and allow better and more effective options for treatment.

There are three major categories of headache based upon the source of the pain:

  1. primary headaches;
  2. secondary headaches; and
  3. cranial neuralgias, facial pain, and other headaches.