Glossary of Headache Terms

Abdominal Migraine - A type of migraine that mainly occurs in childhood, characterized by abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea, but with little or no headache. Later in life, children with abdominal migraine may develop more typical migraine attacks.

Abortive Medication - Medication taken to "abort" or stop a headache after it already begins.

Acetaminophen - An aspirin substitute. Like aspirin, acetaminophen works as a pain killer and fever reducer, but it does not have anti-inflammatory properties and does not produce the side effects associated with aspirin, such as stomach irritation.

ACHE - American Council for Headache Education, an organization affiliated with AHS, and made up of both headache patients and professionals who treat headache. The purpose of the organization is to educate patients and the public about headache, and to advocate up-to-date treatment for headache sufferers.

Acupressure - Derived from traditional Chinese medicine, this is a form of treatment for pain that involves pressure on particular points in the body know as "acupressure points".

Acupuncture - Derived from traditional Chinese medicine, this is a form of treatment for pain that involves insertion of fine needles into particular points in the body known as "acupuncture points".

AHS - American Headache Society, a professional organization of physicians, dentists, physician's assistants, nurses, and other health professionals and scientists interested in the study of headache and its' treatment.

Amitriptlyine - An anti-depressant medication useful in treating migraine and tension type headaches.

Analgesic - Medication for the relief of pain. An analgesic works to increase the patient's pain threshold, thereby decreasing the sensation of pain. Analgesics range from aspirin and acetaminophen to narcotics.

Aneurysm - A congenital weak point in the wall of an artery that may bulge outwards, and may occasionally rupture and bleed, causing what is called a "subarachnoid hemorrhage", which produces a severe headache and stiff neck and sometimes can be fatal.

Anti-inflammatory - A class of drugs that reduces inflammation in the body, and that are often used to treat arthritis. These drugs can also be useful in reducing the inflammation associated with certain types of headaches, but may cause gastrointestinal upset.

Anticonvulsant - A class of drugs used to treat convulsive seizures, or epilepsy. Some of these medications, such as Valproic Acid or Depakote, are also used in prevention of headache, even when headaches are not associated with seizures.

Antidepressant - A class of drugs used primarily to treat depression. Some of these drugs have also been found to be useful in the prevention of headache, even when headaches are not associated with depression.

Antiemetics - A class of drugs used to treat nausea and/or vomiting.

Aura - The warning symptoms, usually visual, that may sometimes occur shortly before a migraine headache begins. The word "aura" comes from the Greek word for wind, and just as a strong wind may precede a storm, an aura may precede the storm of migraine. Auras may occur without head pain.

Barbiturate - A class of drugs that causes sedation and relaxation. Barbiturates may be found in combination abortive medications used to treat the symptoms of headache. If used too frequently (more than a couple of days per week), they may be habit-forming.

Basilar Migraine - A type of migraine that mainly affects children and adolescents. Associated with the headache are a number of symptoms related to the part of the brain supplied by the basilar artery. These include vertigo (spinning sensations), loss of balance, and sometimes, loss of consciousness as well as prominent nausea and vomiting.

Benzodiazepines - A category of potentially addictive tranquilizers that may increase depression at the same time that they reduce anxiety.

Beta Blockers - A class of drugs used to treat heart disease and high blood pressure. These drugs lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. They were discovered accidentally to also be useful for preventing migraine headaches.

Biofeedback - A form of treatment for headache that uses electronic feedback of hand temperature and/or muscle tension to rapidly teach patients how to deeply relax. Acquiring and regularly practicing these skills has been shown to often reduce the frequency and severity of both migraine and tension-type headaches.

Caffeine - A stimulating drug found in coffee, tea, and cola beverages. After a headache begins, caffeine may be helpful in aborting headaches, so it is widely used in combination drugs prescribed for relief of headache. Paradoxically, using caffeine to excess or too rapid withdrawal from caffeine, may cause headaches in some individuals.

Caffeine Withdrawal Headache - A headache caused by dilation of the blood vessels once the constrictive effects of caffeine are no longer present.

Calcium Channel Blocker - A type of medication that may prevent migraine headaches by acting on the blood vessels, the brain, or both.

CAT Scan - "Computerized Axial Tomographic" scan, a type of X-ray scan utilized for diagnostic purposes which can be useful in identifying causes of headache that may masquerade as migraine.

Chiropractic - A philosophic system of mechanical therapeutics that associates many diseases on poor alignment of the vertebrae. Chiropractors treat disease with manipulation of the vertebrae in order to relieve pressure on the nerves, "so that nerve force may flow freely from the brain to the rest of the body".

Chlorpromazine - A powerful major tranquilizer that relieves the pain and nausea of migraine.

Chronic Headache - Headache that occurs frequently over a period of time, generally at least every other day or 15 days per month for a period of at least six months.

Classic Migraine - An older term for what is now called "migraine with aura" (see definition of aura above).

Cluster Headache - A particular type of headache that mainly affects men by a 6 to 1 ratio. It is characterized by intense but brief (30 minutes to 2 hours) pain in and around one eye occurring daily or several times per day in "clusters" that typically last for a couple of months. The patient then may go for many months with no headaches at all. Along with the headache, there are usually other phenomena such as tearing and redness of the affected eye, or stuffy nose.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - An approach to psychotherapy that helps patients take control of their illness, and their lives, through insight, self knowledge and planning.

Common Migraine - An older term for what is now called "migraine without aura" (see definition of aura above).

Chronic Paroxysmal Hemicrania - (CPH) A very rare headache syndrome which can resemble cluster headache as it presents itself as multiple, short, severe headaches that occurs on a daily basis. They can also be associated with tearing, nasal stuffiness, etc. CPH differs from cluster headache in that the patients are almost always female, the headache attacks are shorter (1-2 minutes) and much more frequent with attacks occurring on average of 14 times per day. This condition responds almost 100% of the time to treatment with Indomethacin.

Daily Headache - Headache that occurs either daily or almost daily, at least 20 days per month.

Depression - Not just temporary or situational sadness, but a persistent and pervasive feeling of sadness or hopelessness that is often associated with weight loss (or gain), sleep disturbances, constipation, disturbances of sexual function, and feelings of guilt or self-blame.

Dexamethasone - A steroid drug used to treat inflammation.

DHE - Abbreviation for Dihydroergotamine, a drug used, usually by injection or nasal spray, to treat migraine, rebound and cluster headaches.

Diagnosis - The process of taking a history and performing an examination in order to decide what is causing a particular symptom, such as headache, so that a correct treatment can be chosen.

D.O. - Abbreviation for a doctor of osteopathy, a degree indicating medical training approximately the same as that for a doctor of medicine or M.D. Practitioners of osteopathy or osteopaths, use the diagnostic and therapeutic measures of ordinary medicine in addition to having training in manipulative measures.

Dopamine - One of several chemicals called "neurotransmitters" that transmit or send messages from one nerve cell to another in the nervous system.

Dysrhythmia - A disturbance in the normal pattern of brain waves as recorded in encephalography (EEG). Dysrhythmias of different kinds may show up during migraine, sleep, overexcitement, etc.

EEG - Electroencephalography is a test used to detect and record the electrical activity generated by the brain.

EMG - Electromyography is a test used to discover diseases of the muscles, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves.

Endorphins - Hormone-like substances produced in the brain that have analgesic properties.

Episodic - Describing occurrences that come and go, with or without a regular pattern.

Ergotamine - A drug originally derived from the ergot fungus that constricts blood vessels and has been used since the 1920's to treat migraine headaches.

Exercise - Many headache specialists believe that regular physical exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches, although, not many research studies have been done to prove or disprove this widespread belief. If true, exercise may help by reducing stress.

Feverfew - An herb (plant of the chrysanthemum family) used for the prevention of migraine headaches. It is more widely used in England than in this country. Potency varies from one preparation to another since this herb is not regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. There are anecdotal reports in the medical literature that it is helpful, but no carefully controlled scientific studies.

Glaucoma - An eye disease that can eventually cause blindness. Glaucoma is sometimes the cause of headache pain.

Hangover Headache - A headache linked to the consumption of alcohol, which dilates and irritates the brain's blood vessels.

Head Trauma - Injury to the head, which may in some cases lead to what are called "post-traumatic headaches".

Headache - Generally refers to a persistent or lasting pain in the head region, as contrasted with a "head pain", such as trigeminal neuralgia, which is quite brief.

Homeopathy - The practice of the use of active ingredients in minute dosages along with naturally occurring substances in order to provide a healthier balance of internal chemistry. These minute dosages would be viewed in traditional medicine as ineffective.

Hormone Replacement Therapy - The therapeutic use of synthetic hormones, usually estrogen and progesterone after menopause or following a hysterectomy.

Hormones - Powerful substances secreted by the endocrine glands in the body that are carried through the blood stream to have effects on other parts of the body distant from where they are produced.

Hydrocephalus - An uncharacteristic swelling in the amount of cerebrospinal fluid within the skull, causing dangerous expansion of the cerebral ventricles.

Hypertension Headache - A headache that strikes people who have very high blood pressure. Its "hatband" type pain can be most severe in the morning.

Hypnosis - A sleep-like state usually induced by another person in which the subject retains awareness of the presence of the hypnotist and where the subject is susceptible to heightened suggestibility. After training by a hypnotist, some migraine patients can be taught to hypnotize themselves in order to reduce stress and related symptoms.

Ice Cream Headache - A painful condition in the roof of the mouth produced by eating ice cream too quickly.

Idiopathic - Occurring spontaneously, not traceable to a direct cause.

Indomethacin - A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication which can be effective for the relief of migraine and other types of headaches.

Imitrex - Brand name for Sumatriptan, a fairly new migraine abortive medication available as a self-administered injection or as a tablet.

International Headache Society - An international professional organization of physicians and other health professionals and scientists interested in the study of headache and its' treatment. In 1988, the International Headache Society, or IHS, developed definitions of the different types of headaches that are widely accepted by physicians and others who treat headache world-wide.

Intractable Migraine - A migraine headache that "just won't stop". By definition, any migraine that persists longer than 72 hours is referred to as "status migrainosus". Migraines may often become transformed into a chronic daily headache by too frequent use of either painkillers or ergots.

Letdown Migraine - Migraine may often occur after times of stress, as after a big exam, or on weekends after a hectic week at work. These are referred to as "letdown" attacks.

Light Sensitivity - People with migraine may become very sensitive to light, a condition known as "photophobia", or literally "fear of light". A similar sensitivity to sound may also occur, and is known as "phonophobia".

Magnesium - An element found in trace amounts in the body, in certain foods, and believed to possibly play a role in the cause of migraine headaches, according to some recent research.

MAO Inhibitors - Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors are a class of drugs used for treating depression and also have been found useful in treatment of migraine. Persons taking MAO inhibitors may not eat certain foods containing tyramine because of the danger of increase in blood pressure and, therefore, must be closely monitored during treatment.

Massage - A method of manipulation of the body by rubbing, pinching, kneading, tapping, etc., that can be helpful in producing relaxation.

M.D. - Abbreviation for "medical doctor".

Menstrual Migraine - The terms "pure menstrual migraine" or "true menstrual migraine" refers to migraine attacks that occur only with menses. If attacks occur mainly but not exclusively with menses, this may be referred to as "mainly menstrual migraine".

Migraine - A particular form of recurrent headache that often runs in families. According to the International Headache Society, migraine headache pain must have four of the following characteristics: one-sided, pulsating or throbbing, at least moderate if not severe, and worsened by ordinary daily activities such as climbing stairs or housework. In addition, the pain must be accompanied by either nausea or else sensitivity to light and noise. There must be no evidence of other disease and at least 4-5 attacks before a physician can be confident of the diagnosis.

Migraine Equivalents - Symptoms such as unexplained flashing lights or visual disturbances, transient numbness, unexplained bouts of abdominal pain or nausea, etc., all of which are considered to be fragments of a full-blown migraine attack. Migraine equivalents tend to occur most commonly in either children or older persons. Other disorders that might explain these symptoms must be ruled out by appropriate tests.

Migraineur - A designation sometimes used for people with migraine.

Monoamine Oxidase - A family of enzymes involved in the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters. MAO inhibitors act to block these enzymes.

MRI - An acronym for "magnetic resonance imaging", a computerized way of making pictures or images without the use of X-rays, but instead with the help of a powerful magnet.

MSG - Abbreviation for "monosodium glutamate", often found in seasonings or Chinese food. MSG may sometimes trigger migraine attacks in susceptible individuals.

Naproxen - A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication.

Narcotics - Strong prescription painkillers such as Demerol, Stadol, or Codeine, all of which are habit-forming if taken too often for too long at a time.

Naturopathy - The practice of the use of natural substances to provide a healthier balance of internal chemistry.

Neuralgia - The pain spasms of a major nerve. The pain can be jabbing, sudden and repetitive. There are several different types of neuralgia's, and each affects a different area. Trigeminal neuralgia, for example, affects the nerves of the face.

Neurologic - Relating to neurology or to the nervous system itself.

Neurologist - A medical specialist with advanced training in diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles, including such common disorders as headache, dizziness, stroke and back pain.

Neurology - The branch of medical science that specializes in the nervous system.

Neurotransmitters - Naturally occurring chemicals in the brain which transmit messages from one nerve cell to another.

Neurovascular - Pertaining to the relationship between nerves and the blood vessels they supply.

Nitrites - Chemical preservatives used in meats, various processed foods and, because they are known to dilate blood vessels, they can cause headaches in some people.

Nondrug Therapy - A treatment that does not involve the use of drugs or medications. In the case of headache, such nondrug therapies might include: biofeedback, acupuncture, dietary counseling, stress management training, physical therapy, etc.

Ocular Migraine - A type of migraine with aura or "classical" migraine in which visual symptoms are prominent, sometimes with little or no headache component.

Ophthalmoplegic Migraine - A very rare type of migraine in which there is weakness of one or more of the muscles that moves the eye. This is said to occur mainly in young people, and other, more common causes for painful paralysis of the eye muscles, must be excluded by appropriate diagnostic testing.

Oxygen Therapy - Breathing of oxygen from a tank which is sometimes very helpful for cluster headaches.

Pain Rating System - Since pain is an internal and private experience, various scales have been devised for rating pain. One of the most common, rates pain on a zero to ten scale, with ten being the most severe pain a person has ever experienced. Yet another assigns the number one to mild pain, two to moderate pain, three to severe pain, and four to pain that causes incapacity.

Personality - In the past, it was thought that there was a typical "migraine personality". Now, this is no longer felt to be the case, as the primary factor determining whether or not a person will have migraine or not is heredity, not personality. Nevertheless, hurrying, worrying, and stress can all aggravate migraine.

Phonophobia - Abnormal sensitivity to sound.

Phosphenes - Tiny, brilliant sparks often seen during the first stage of migraine.

Photophobia - Abnormal sensitivity to light.

Postdrome - The period following a bad migraine headache during which a person feels "hung over", tired, and "beaten up" is referred to as the headache postdrome.

Posttraumatic Headache - Headache which follows an injury or trauma. There does not have to be loss of consciousness for an injury to cause significant headache in some cases.

Premenstrual Syndrome - (PMS) Combination of symptoms experienced by some women prior to menstruation.

Prodrome - The period of time preceding a migraine headache during which a person may feel irritable, out of sorts, moody, unusually sensitive to light or noise, and may notice some fluid retention. This may go on for one or two days or just a few hours before the actual headache begins.

Prophylactic Medication - Preventative medication taken on a regular schedule to prevent the onset of an ailment such as migraine.

Prophylaxis - Measures taken to prevent the development of headache. These measures may include daily use of medication or nondrug therapies.

Propranolol - Beta blocker medication widely prescribed for hypertension and other chronic conditions, and effective in preventing migraine.

Rebound Headache - A chronic form of headache brought about by taking painkillers to excess (usually at least two days out of three). This is thought to be due to suppression of the body's own painfighting mechanisms.

Referred Pain - Pain perceived as occurring in a part of the body other than its true source.

Scintillation - The perception of twinkling light of varying intensity that can occur during the migraine aura.

Scotoma - An area of decreased or lost vision. Scotoma can be a characteristic symptom of migraine auras.

Serotonin - A neurotransmitter thought to be important in the mechanism of migraine headaches.

Sinus Headache - A headache caused by a clogged sinus cavity.

Sinusitis - Infection or inflammation of the sinuses. When the sinuses are infected, there is usually a low-grade fever, tenderness to touch over the sinuses, and a thick, colored nasal or post-nasal drainage.

Status Migrainosus - A severe unrelenting migraine headache associated with nausea and vomiting which lasts for several days and may not be manageable under outpatient care.

Stress - An emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences and capable of affecting physical health which can be characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability and depression. Stress does not cause migraine but can be a migraine "trigger".

Sumitriptan - Refer to "Imitrex".

Synapse - The junction between nerve cells where a nerve impulse is transferred from one neuron to another.

Syncope - A brief loss of consciousness (a blackout).

Temporal Arteritis - A headache caused by inflamed arteries in the head and neck. It requires immediate medical attention.

TENS - Acronym for "transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation". A TENS unit is a small battery powered device with wires that attach to electrodes pasted to the skin. Small electrical stimuli are applied to the skin in order to "tie up" nerve pathways that carry pain messages. This interferes with the transmission of pain messages to the brain, and can be helpful in certain chronic pain problems.

Tension Headache - As defined by the International Headache Society, a tension type headache is just the opposite of migraine. That is, the pain is on both sides of the head, is pressing and steady, rather than pulsating, is usually mild and does not cause incapacity and, is not worsened by ordinary daily activities. There is no associated nausea or sensitivity to light and noise.

TMJ - Acronym for "temporomandibular joint", or the joints where the jaw attaches to the skull just in front of the ears. It is sometimes linked to headache pain.

Trigger - Anything that can set off a migraine headache in a genetically predisposed individual is referred to as a "trigger". Common triggers include (but are not limited to) stress, changes in female hormone levels, skipping meals, certain odors such as perfume, sleeping late on weekends, sleep loss, alcohol, and some foods including cheese, chocolate and MSG.

Trigeminal Nerve - The fifth cranial nerve, a major nerve of the face and head. It is related to nerve impulses that direct the muscles for jaw movement.

Tumor Headache - A headache caused by a tumor, or growth, that presses on the brain. Symptoms can include seizures, loss of consciousness, projectile vomiting and speech disturbances. While migraine sufferers can experience severe pain (making them feel as though they may have a tumor), of those persons suffering from migraine, less than 0.004% actually suffer from a brain tumor.

Tyramine - A substance found in meats, cheese and red wine, which can trigger migraine in a susceptible individual.

Unilateral - Affecting or relating to only one side.

Vascular - Relating to the channels that carry body fluids, usually used in connection with the blood vessels.

Vascular Pain - Pain caused by the dilation or constriction of blood vessels. Dilating (enlarging) the blood vessels in the head causes pain when the vessels exert pressure on surrounding nerves. Constructing (narrowing) the blood vessels reduces the supply of blood to the brain. The tissue around the blood vessels may become inflamed, and chemical irritants build up in the area.

Vasoactive - Affecting the dilation or constriction of blood vessels.

Verapamil - A type of calcium channel blocker medication which can be effective in preventing migraine.

Vertigo - The sensation of spinning or whirling.


Source: American Council for Headache Education