AskDefine | Define cephalalgia

Dictionary Definition

cephalalgia n : pain in the head caused by dilation of cerebral arteries or muscle contractions or a reaction to drugs [syn: headache, head ache]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A pain in the head; headache

Extensive Definition

A headache (cephalalgia in medical terminology) is a condition of pain in the head; sometimes neck or upper back pain may also be interpreted as a headache. It ranks amongst the most common local pain complaints and may be frequent for many people.
The vast majority of headaches are benign and self-limiting. Common causes are tension, migraine, eye strain, dehydration, low blood sugar, and sinusitis. Much rarer are headaches due to life-threatening conditions such as meningitis, encephalitis, cerebral aneurysms, extremely high blood pressure, and brain tumors. When the headache occurs in conjunction with a head injury the cause is usually quite evident. A large percentage of headaches among women are caused by ever-fluctuating estrogen during menstrual years. This can occur prior to, or even during midcycle menstruation.
Treatment of an uncomplicated headache is usually symptomatic with over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol (acetaminophen), or ibuprofen, although some specific forms of headaches (e.g., migraines) may demand other, more suitable treatment. It may be possible to relate the occurrence of a headache to other particular triggers (such as stress or particular foods), which can then be avoided.


The brain in itself is not sensitive to pain, because it lacks nociceptors. Several areas of the head can hurt, including a network of nerves which extend over the scalp and certain nerves in the face, mouth, and throat. The meninges and the blood vessels do have pain perception. Headaches often result from traction to or irritation of the meninges and blood vessels. The membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord, called the dura mater, is innervated with nociceptors. Stimulation of these dural nociceptors is thought to be involved in producing headaches. Similarly the muscles of the head may be sensitive to pain.


There are five types of headache: vascular, myogenic (muscle tension), cervicogenic, traction, and inflammatory.


The most common type of vascular headache is migraine. Migraine headaches are usually characterized by severe pain on one or both sides of the head, an upset stomach, and, for some people, disturbed vision. It is more common in women. While vascular changes are evident during a migraine, the cause of the headache is neurologic, not vascular. After migraine, the most common type of vascular headache is the "toxic" headache produced by fever.
Other kinds of vascular headaches include cluster headaches, which are very severe recurrent short lasting headaches, often located through or around the either eye and often wake the sufferers up at the same time every night. Unlike migraines, these headaches are more common in men than in women.


Muscular (or myogenic) headaches appear to involve the tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles; they may radiate to the forehead. Tension headache is the most common form of myogenic headache.


Cervicogenic headaches originate from disorders of the neck, including the anatomical structures innervated by the cervical roots C1–C3. Cervical headache is often precipitated by neck movement and/or sustained awkward head positioning. It is often accompanied by restricted cervical range of motion, ipsilateral neck, shoulder, or arm pain of a rather vague non-radicular nature or, occasionally, arm pain of a radicular nature.


Traction and inflammatory headaches are symptoms of other disorders, ranging from stroke to sinus infection. Specific types of headaches include:
A headache may also be a symptom of sinusitis.
Like other types of pain, headaches can serve as warning signals of more serious disorders. This is particularly true for headaches caused by inflammation, including those related to meningitis as well as those resulting from diseases of the sinuses, spine, neck, ears, and teeth.


While, statistically, headaches are most likely to be harmless and self-limiting, some specific headache syndromes may demand specific treatment or may be warning signals of more serious disorders. Some headache subtypes are characterized by a specific pattern of symptoms, and no further testing may be necessary, while others may prompt further diagnostic tests.
Headache associated with specific symptoms may warrant urgent medical attention, particularly sudden, severe headache or sudden headache associated with a stiff neck; headaches associated with fever, convulsions or accompanied by confusion or loss of consciousness; headaches following a blow to the head, or associated with pain in the eye or ear; persistent headache in a person with no previous history of headaches; and recurring headache in children.
The most important step in diagnosing a headache is for the physician to take a careful history and to examine the patient. In the majority of cases the diagnosis will be a "primary headache" which means that the headache, whilst unpleasant is not an occurring as a manifestation of a more serious condition. The main types of primary headache are tension headache, migraine and the trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias of which cluster headache is an example. As it is often difficult for patients to recall the precise details regarding each headache, it is often useful for the sufferer to fill-out a "headache diary" detailing the characteristics of the headache. When the headache does not clearly fit into one of the recognized primary headache syndromes or when atypical symptoms or signs are present then further investigations are justified. Computed tomography (CT/CAT) scans of the brain or sinuses are commonly performed, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in specific settings. Blood tests may help narrow down the differential diagnosis, but are rarely confirmatory of specific headache forms.


Not all headaches require medical attention, and many respond with simple analgesia (painkillers) such as paracetamol/acetaminophen or members of the NSAID class (such as aspirin/acetylsalicylic acid or ibuprofen).
In recurrent unexplained headaches, healthcare professionals may recommend keeping a "headache diary" with entries on type of headache, associated symptoms, precipitating and aggravating factors. This may reveal specific patterns, such as an association with medication, menstruation or absenteeism or with certain foods. It was reported in March 2007 by two separate teams of researchers that stimulating the brain with implanted electrodes appears to help ease the pain of cluster headaches.


Some forms of headache, such as migraine, may be amenable to preventative treatment. On the whole, long-term use of painkillers is discouraged as this may lead to "rebound headaches" on withdrawal. Caffeine, a vasoconstrictor, is sometimes prescribed or recommended as a remedy or supplement to pain killers in the case of extreme migraine. This has led to the development of paracetamol/caffeine analgesic. One popular herbal preventive treatment for migraines is Feverfew. Magnesium, Vitamin B2, and Coenzyme Q10 are "natural" supplements that have shown some efficacy for migraine prevention(5).

Massage therapy

A 2002 study found that massage therapy targeted at neck and shoulder muscles reduced headache frequency and duration, starting in the first week and continuing through the eight-week study, though it did not find a change in headache intensity. The study authors concluded that "the muscle-specific massage therapy technique" they used "has the potential to be a functional, nonpharmacological intervention for reducing the incidence of chronic tension headache."


cephalalgia in Arabic: صداع
cephalalgia in Bavarian: Schädlweh
cephalalgia in Bosnian: Glavobolja
cephalalgia in Bulgarian: Главоболие
cephalalgia in Catalan: Mal de cap
cephalalgia in Danish: Hovedpine
cephalalgia in German: Kopfschmerz
cephalalgia in Dhivehi: ބޮލުގައި ރިހުން
cephalalgia in Modern Greek (1453-): Πονοκέφαλος
cephalalgia in Spanish: Cefalea
cephalalgia in Esperanto: Kapdoloro
cephalalgia in Basque: Buruko min
cephalalgia in French: Céphalée
cephalalgia in Icelandic: Höfuðverkur
cephalalgia in Italian: Cefalea
cephalalgia in Hebrew: כאב ראש
cephalalgia in Latin: Cephalalgia
cephalalgia in Dutch: Hoofdpijn
cephalalgia in Japanese: 頭痛
cephalalgia in Norwegian: Hodepine
cephalalgia in Polish: Ból głowy
cephalalgia in Portuguese: Cefaléia
cephalalgia in Quechua: Uma nanay
cephalalgia in Russian: Головная боль
cephalalgia in Simple English: Headache
cephalalgia in Slovak: Bolesť hlavy
cephalalgia in Slovenian: Glavobol
cephalalgia in Finnish: Päänsärky
cephalalgia in Swedish: Huvudvärk
cephalalgia in Turkish: Baş ağrısı
cephalalgia in Yiddish: קאפוויי
cephalalgia in Chinese: 頭疼
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