What Are Acute Headaches?

Millions of people around the world suffer from headaches. It has been estimated that approximately half of the adult population worldwide suffer from a headache disorder. When head or neck pain comes on suddenly and quickly worsens, it is referred to as an acute headache. Headaches are caused by irritation of structures that surround the brain, including the cranium (skull), muscles, nerves, veins, arteries, subcutaneous tissues, ears, eyes, sinuses, or mucous membranes.

unhappy man with closed eyes touching his foreheadIn general, the cause of the pain associated with headaches is not dangerous and patients who are experiencing an acute headache are not at a serious risk. However, it is important that you monitor your headache symptoms closely and consult with your doctor to rule out any underlying serious conditions that may be present.

Seek immediate care if any of the following factors apply to your recent acute headache attack:

  • If this is your first headache
  • If this headache is more severe or different than your normal headaches
  • If you have an atypical aura or any neurological symptoms, such as numbness or tingling
  • If this headache was triggered by exertion, coughing, or if it occurred during sexual intercourse
  • If you have a change in mental status
  • If you had a loss of consciousness
  • If you have neck stiffness
  • If you have a fever or rash
  • If you have tenderness around your temples

There are a number of different types of headaches, with the most common being tension type headaches, migraine headaches, and cluster headaches.

Migrain headacheTension headaches are typically characterized by pain in the forehead or back of the head. Sometimes patients describe a band of pain around their head. Tension headaches usually follow a regular pattern and can occur daily. A patient may experience sensitivity to light and sound when they are suffering from a tension headache.

Migraine headaches are characterized by a throbbing pain in the temple region, back of the head, or behind the eyes, and are usually only on one side of the head. The pain intensity of a migraine headache ranges from moderate to severe and can last on average from one to three days. Patients may experience nausea, and vomiting as well as sensitivity to light and sound when they are suffering from a migraine. Some patients may also have an aura before the migraine attack, which acts as a warning sign of an impending attack.

Cluster headaches are characterized by severe pain usually located around one eye. Cluster headaches tend to follow a cyclical pattern. Cluster headaches often begin during the night and patients often report that the pain has woken them up from sleep. Each cluster headache attack can last between thirty minutes to two hours. Frequent attacks (clusters) can occur over the course of weeks or months followed by a remission period. Patients commonly experience eyelid drooping and a runny nose with cluster headaches.

Causes Of Acute Headaches

Acute headache attacks are very common and can be associated with a variety of underlying health conditions. Unfortunately, identifying the cause of an acute headache attack can be challenging. In order to identify the cause of your acute headache, your doctor will take a detailed health history, including pertinent family history details in addition to detailed questions regarding your current headache.

Many headache conditions can be diagnosed from a patient’s history alone; however at times a physical examination may also be performed if additional information is needed. Additionally, your doctor may order tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) to further assess your headache symptoms.

Headaches are usually classified as primary or secondary. Headaches that result from a disturbance in the pain-sensitive structures of the head or neck are referred to as primary headaches. Those that originate from a medical condition elsewhere in the body are referred to as secondary headaches.

There are various causes of acute headaches including:

  • Stress
  • Muscle or joint irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Food sensitivities
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Trauma

Treatment For Acute Headaches

impact of headachesThere are a variety of treatment options for acute headaches ranging from conservative methods to more invasive options. For patients whose pain is not severe, conservative treatment options are usually recommended. Home treatments including ice on the head or neck, lying down in a dark room, and over-the-counter pain medications are often effective options for pain management. Additional conservative methods including physical therapy, chiropractic care, massage therapy, and acupuncture may also be of benefit to some patients.

While over-the-counter medications may work for individuals suffering from a mild headache, those suffering from more severe headache pain may need additional medications.  Anti-inflammatory medications (also known as NSAIDs) are often effective for pain management. In addition, some doctors prescribe medications that act to constrict blood vessels which helps to reduce pain associated with headaches.

Patients who suffer from chronic, debilitating headaches may be offered preventative medications. Prophylactic medications that are currently used for headaches include amitriptyline, fluoxetine, gabapentin, tizanidine, topiramate, and Botulinum (onabotulinum toxin type A).

location of the Bion in the occipital regionAdditional therapies that may be offered to patients suffering from debilitating and severe pain may include stimulation of the occipital nerve, an occipital nerve block, a Botulinum injection, a cervical facet joint injection, a cervical epidural corticosteroid injection, a sphenopalatine ganglion block, a supratrochlear nerve block, a supra- or infraorbital nerve block, or radiofrequency ablation.

For patients who suffer from chronic headaches, it is recommended that they keep a headache diary of their symptoms. Patients are usually asked to record details such as the time of day that the headache began, level of pain, length of the headache, any associated symptoms (nausea, vision changes, etc.), activities that were being performed prior to onset, and any unusual situations that may have happened. A headache diary helps identify any headache triggers, which helps to develop a preventative treatment plan for headache management.


Headaches that come on quickly and rapidly get worse are referred to as acute headaches. Headaches are typically classified as either primary or secondary in nature. While primary headaches originate from disturbances in structures within the head or neck, secondary headaches are associated with medical conditions elsewhere in the body.

Determining the source of the headache is essential in order to provide appropriate care. While some headache conditions are not serious, there are more critical causes of headaches that require urgent medical attention. Due to the fact that there are numerous treatment options for headaches, it is best to speak to your doctor about your headache pain in order to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for your condition.

Learn more about Acute Headaches on Pain Doctor.


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