Primary headaches

Most of the common headaches experienced by people are primary headaches. These headaches are not caused by an underlying condition but occur when the body has an altered response to pain. Types of primary headache include:

  • Tension headaches – These are thought to be caused by contraction of the head and neck muscles which can reduce blood flow resulting in an aching or pressure in the head. It can feel like your head has a tight band around it. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and usually don’t impact your daily life too much.
  • Migraines – The exact cause of this type of headache is unknown but it is thought that they may be due to changes to the pain receptors and blood flow, and result in a moderate to severe throbbing or pulsating pain. Migraines can last for 4 to 72 hours* and may make you feel sick or extra sensitive to light, sound, or smell. It is the second most common type of headache.
  • Cluster headaches – These rare headaches are thought to be linked to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and circadian (day/night) rhythm since they happen at the same times each year, for example, when we change the clocks for daylight saving. They are very painful attacks that frequently occur on one side of the head, typically lasting between 15 minutes to 3 hours.* Most episodes are triggered by alcohol.

There are other forms of primary headache where pain can be triggered by an activity, such as sex, exercise, coughing, cold weather and having cold food or drink (brain freeze!).

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are uncommon and occur as a symptom of another disorder or condition that has been diagnosed by a doctor. Causes of headaches that are secondary may include:

  • Infections
  • Inflammation
  • Nose or sinus disorders, e.g., rhinosinusitis
  • Trauma/injury to the head and/or neck

Seek medical advice if a headache is new, unusual or you are at all worried about it.

Medication-overuse headaches can happen if you take too much medication, so it is important to always read the directions for use and follow the advice of your doctor or pharmacist.      


Ways you can manage headache pain

There are many things you can do to help relieve common headache pain. These include:

  • Hot and cold therapy: Safely applying heat packs or cooling devices to your head and/or neck can help to ease a migraine.
  • Stress relief and relaxation: Emotional stress is a common cause of headache so it’s important to take time to relax. Relaxation and mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation can help lift your mood to manage the pain better. Improving your sleeping patterns can also help to reduce the frequency of headaches.
  • Needling therapy: Acupuncture and dry needling may be used to manage primary headaches, and when combined with other medication, reduces the frequency of migraine attacks.
  • Exercise: Aerobic exercise can help to normalise the central nervous system and help manage pain. Specific head and neck exercises may also help to relieve tension headaches. However, for some people excessive exercise can make the pain feel worse, so it’s important to find an appropriate exercise program that’s suitable for you.
  • Soft-tissue massage: A physiotherapist can use pressure, stretching and massage to reduce muscle tension to help reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of tension headaches.
  • Pain-relief medication: Pain relievers can help you get relief. For fast, temporary pain relief, try Nurofen Zavance tablets or caplets, they are absorbed up to twice as fast as standard Nurofen.^


*Ahmed F. Br J Pain 2012.  ^Dewland PM et al. 2009 (Reckitt Sponsored).