Cytokines have been measured in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from headache patients [infrequent episodic tension-type headache (TTH) and migraine with or without aura, all during attack, and cervicogenic headache] and compared with levels in pain-free individuals. Both proinflammatory [interleukin (IL)-1beta, tumour necrosis factor-alpha and monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1)] and anti-inflammatory cytokines [IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra), IL-4, IL-10 and transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1)] were included. There were significant group differences in IL-1ra, TGF-beta1 and MCP-1 in episodic TTH and migraine compared with controls, and a significant difference in MCP-1 between cervicogenic headache and migraine with aura. Intrathecal MCP-1 correlated with IL-1ra, IL-10 and TGF-beta1 in episodic TTH, and MCP-1 with IL-10 in migraine with aura. Cytokine increases were modest compared with those often accompanying serious neurological conditions, and may represent a mild response to pain. We believe this to be the first comparative study of CSF cytokine levels in connection with headache.