Brain Health

Are Your Daily Headaches a Sign of Something More Serious?

Originally published December 5, 2018

Last updated April 23, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Don’t fret just yet. The pounding pain in your head may be annoying, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a bigger problem.

There it is again — the throbbing in your dome. If you’re bothered by frequent headaches, you may be concerned that you have a more serious condition, such as a brain tumor or an aneurysm. And while those and other dangerous conditions can be marked by headaches, it’s likely that your pain is primary. In other words: It’s probably not the result of another condition.

Unfortunately, doctors don’t know what causes most headaches. According to some estimates, only 10% of headaches have a known cause. But there are contributing factors that can trigger chronic headaches, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Dehydration
  • Hunger
  • Lack of sleep
  • Sensory triggers such as bright lights, loud noises and pungent smells
  • Stress

Chronic headaches can also be linked to other disorders, including depression, anxiety, sinus infections, allergies and temporomandibular joint dysfunction, also known as TMJ. In order to figure out your headache pattern and identify your triggers, you may want to keep a headache diary to share with your doctor. The National Headache Foundation provides a handy template.

Here are a few common types of chronic headaches:

Tension headache

This is the most common type of headache and it’s likely that you’ve had more than one of these in your life. But for some people, they occur almost every day. Tension headaches affect both sides of your head with a pressing, moderate pain. Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) often help, but taking them for long periods of time can lead to headaches called “medication overuse” or “rebound” headaches. Instead, you may want to try meditation, relaxation techniques or heat therapy.


Migraines, although less common, are more severe. The pain is intense, may pulsate and can be accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light or sound, vomiting or visual disturbances called “auras.” Often, migraines only affect one side of the head, although they can affect both. They also affect women more often than men. Prescription medications are available to treat migraines, but you also may benefit from simply resting in a quiet, dark room and using hot or cold compresses. Progressive symptoms of more severe or frequent headaches, or any headache that is also associated with other neurological symptoms, should be evaluated by a physician

Cluster headache

Men are more likely to have these more sudden headaches, which are often marked by pain on one side of the head, behind the eye. They tend to happen in clustered periods of time, even multiple times a day, then disappear for a while. Eyes tend to water, and a restless feeling is common. These headaches usually require prescription medicines.

New daily persistent headache (NDPH)

If you suddenly get frequent headaches, you may have NDPH. The symptoms of NDPH can mimic tension headaches or migraines, but NDPH occurs in people who don’t have a history of headaches. Often, people with NDPH can remember exactly when the onset happened. Your doctor may need to run tests to make sure these headaches aren’t secondary — that is, a symptom of a serious underlying condition.

Although daily headaches might not be the result of a dangerous problem, they can affect your quality of life and shouldn’t be considered “normal.”

“Progressive symptoms of more severe or frequent headaches, or any headache that is also associated with other neurological symptoms, should be evaluated by a physician,” says Jonathan J. Russin, MD, a neurosurgeon at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical neurological surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Even using these criteria, the majority of headaches will not represent an underlying problem. An exception is a ‘thunderclap’ headache, which refers to the sudden onset of the worst headache of your life. This type of headache should always be evaluated by a physician whether it is associated with other symptoms or not.”


Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.