Headache disorders: differentiating and managing the common subtypes

Br J Pain. 2012 Aug;6(3):124-32. doi: 10.1177/2049463712459691.


Headache is an extremely common symptom and collectively headache disorders are among the most common of the nervous system disorders, with a prevalence of 48.9% in the general population.(1) Headache affects people of all ages, races and socioeconomic status and is more common in women. Some headaches are extremely debilitating and have significant impact on an individual's quality of life, imposing huge costs to healthcare and indirectly to the economy in general. Only a small proportion of headache disorders require specialist input. The vast majority can be effectively treated by a primary care physician or generalist with correct clinical diagnosis that requires no special investigation. Primary headache disorders - migraine, tension headache and cluster headache - constitute nearly 98% of all headaches; however, secondary headaches are important to recognise as they are serious and may be life threatening. This article provides an overview of the most common headache disorders and discusses the red flag symptoms that help identify serious causes that merit urgent specialist referral. The current pathway of headache care in the UK is discussed with a view to proposing a model that might fit well in the financially constrained National Health Service (NHS) and with new NHS reforms. The role of the national society, the British Association for the Study of Headache, and the patient organisations such as Migraine Trust in headache education to the professionals and the general public in shaping headache care in the UK is described. The article concludes by summarising evidence-based management of common headache diagnoses.

Keywords: Headache; cluster headache; medication overuse headache; migraine; tension headache.