Dr David Kernick provides 10 top tips on the diagnosis and management of headache in primary care

kernick david

Read this article to learn more about:

  • differentiating between the most common types of headache presenting in primary care
  • steps to address headache from medication overuse
  • when imaging should be used to look for underlying pathology in headaches.


During a 3-month period, 70% of the adult population will experience headache.1 Migraine is the main cause of high impact headache and, according to one study, affects 7.6% of males and 18.3% of females in England.2 Migraine is ranked 6th in the World Health Organization diseases in terms of disability-adjusted life years (a measure of the degree of disability and time spent with it).3 Despite this, the majority of headache sufferers will not seek medical help. When they do, patients are often not taken seriously and less than 30% of patients receive a formal diagnosis.4

Some of the medicines discussed in this article currently do not have UK marketing authorisation for the indications mentioned. The prescriber should follow relevant professional guidance, taking full responsibility for the decision. Informed consent should be obtained and documented. See the General Medical Council's Good practice in prescribing and managing medicines and devices for further information.

1 Take headache seriously

From the patient's perspective, a major factor in the management of headache is a doctor who listens and takes them seriously.

The aims of management should be to allow the patient to:

  • understand their condition
  • not have any unrealistic hopes of a cure
  • be able to take control of their headache rather than their headache controlling their life.

2 Get the diagnosis right

Getting the diagnosis right is important, and, initially, this can be based on asking the patient what they do when they get a headache.

The two major classifications of headache are:

  • primary—when there is no identifiable underlying disorder
  • secondary—when an underlying cause can be identified.

Box 1 (see below) lists the main subtypes in these groups.

Box 1: Main categories of primary and secondary headache7

Main primary headaches:

  • migraine
  • tension-type headache
  • cluster headache and other trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias.

Main secondary headaches:

  • headache attributed to:
    • head and/or neck trauma
    • cranial or cervical vascular disorder
    • non-vascular intracranial disorder
    • a substance or its withdrawal
    • infection
    • disorder of homeostasis
    • psychiatric disorder
  • headache or facial pain attributed to disorder of cranium, neck, eyes, ears, nose, sinuses, teeth, mouth, or other facial or cranial structures
  • cranial neuralgias and central causes of facial pain.

(See full classification)

Two types of headache form the bulk of consultations for headache in primary care—migraine and tension-type headache4 (the differences between these two types of headache are shown in Table 1, see below). Migraine sufferers will want to lie down, preferably in a quiet, dark room; patients with tensiontype headache will keep going. People with cluster headaches will be agitated and restless.

Table 1: Comparative features of the two main types of headache in patients presenting in primary care
MigraineTension-type headache
UnilateralUsually bilateral
Moderate to severe headacheMild to moderate headache
Throbbing/stabbing nature of painPressure or band-like pain
Associated symptoms include nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and phonophobiaNo associated symptoms
Maybe associated with a prodrome or auraNo prodrome or aura
Prevents normal activityPerson usually able to continue with normal activities

History taking and examination

The presence of two out of the following three symptoms has a high sensitivity and specificity for migraine:

  • recurrent headaches that interfere with function
  • nausea with headache
  • light is more irritating with headache than when headache is absent.

A headache diary is often useful, particularly to establish trigger patterns and any association with menstruation in females (see also tip 8).

Physical examination rarely reveals unexpected signs, but is essential to exclude pathology and to reassure the patient. Blood pressure measurement and examination of fundi are minimum requirements at the first consultation. For patients over 50 years of age, an erythrocyte sedimentation rate test is mandatory to exclude temporal arteritis.

3 Exclude medication-overuse headache

Medication-overuse headache affects up to 3% of the adult population5 and can also be a problem in children. It can occur if analgesics are taken on more than 15 days of the month or triptans on 10 days or more of the month over a 3-month or longer period.6 Codeine-containing combination analgesics are most often the cause.7 When headache medication is stopped, patients will experience more severe headaches in the short term and relapse is common—other non-specific symptoms of withdrawal may also occur. There is no evidence base to direct clinical management but abrupt cessation is the best course of action6 after starting preventative medication to treat the underlying headache, which is usually migraine.

4 Treat migraine early

The key to management of an acute migraine attack is early treatment. First, to overcome the effects of gastric stasis and inhibited drug absorption, and, second, the phenomenon of allodynia, which develops with the migraine attack, and which reflects an increasing anticipation of pain due to a central sensitisation of pain centres. This can be achieved by taking a prokinetic as soon as possible, followed by a triptan at the earliest onset of pain.

The addition of a prokinetic drug is important, either metoclopramide or domperidone, which will reduce nausea, increase gastric emptying, and facilitate absorption. An additional approach would be to use a nasal spray or sumatriptan injection if the gastric stasis is significant. It should be noted that melt formulations are for convenience only and are not absorbed through the oral mucosa.

5 Failure of triptans is not a class effect

When treating migraine, the failure of response to triptans is not a class effect, and if one triptan does not work there is an 80% chance that another will. Table 2 (see below)8 lists the available triptans. Triptans work well in combination with paracetamol and there is evidence of a synergistic benefit with naproxen.9

Table 2: Triptans available for treatment of migraine8
Higher speed of onsetLonger half-life, fewer side-effects
Sumatriptan 50 mg/100 mgNaratriptan 2.5 mg
Rizatriptan 5 mg/10 mgFrovatriptan 2.5 mg
Zolmitriptan 2.5 mg/5 mg 
Eletriptan 20 mg/40 mg 
Almotriptan 12.5 mg 
British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society. British National Formulary: Vol. 70. London: BMJ Group and Pharmaceutical Press, 2015.

6 Look out for cluster headache

Cluster headache is arguably the most painful condition known to medicine, affecting 0.1% of the population annually, with a male:female predominance of 5:1.10 It is often confused with migraine, but a careful history clarifies the diagnosis to an alert practitioner; Table 3 (see below) lists some important differences between migraine and cluster headaches that can assist with this diagnosis. Typically cluster headache manifests for periods lasting 6–8 weeks, two to three times a year, but 10% of people with the condition have the chronic variety, with remission periods of <1 month.10

Table 3: Important differences between migraine and cluster headache
MigraineCluster headache
Pain can occur in any locationPain is periorbital
Pain is severe and throbbing. Patients want to lie downPain is very severe and piercing. Patients pace the room
Attack lasts 4–72 hoursAttack lasts 15–180 minutes and headaches come in clusters
No autonomic featuresAutonomic features around the eye on side of pain
Nausea, vomiting, photophobia, or phonophobiaNausea, vomiting, photophobia, or phonophobia are rare

For treatment suggestions, refer to NICE Clinical Guideline 150 (CG150).11

7 Always be on the lookout for a serious underlying cause of headache

Serious causes of headache, in particular a brain tumour, are always a concern for the physician and this possibility should always be explored with the patient, who invariably will have similar concerns. However, these are very rare and investigation should not be undertaken only to alleviate anxiety. Taking the time to address the patient's concerns can help avoid unnecessary testing. Worrying features that should alert the GP to a possible secondary cause of headache are:11

  • worsening headache with fever
  • sudden-onset headache reaching maximum intensity within 5 minutes
  • new-onset neurological deficit
  • new-onset cognitive dysfunction
  • change in personality
  • impaired level of consciousness
  • recent (typically within the past 3 months) head trauma
  • headache triggered by cough, valsalva (trying to breathe out with nose and mouth blocked) or sneeze
  • headache triggered by exercise
  • orthostatic headache (headache that changes with posture)
  • symptoms suggestive of giant cell arteritis
  • symptoms and signs of acute narrow-angle glaucoma
  • a substantial change in the characteristic of the headache.

Investigation should not be undertaken for reassurance only. The anxiety and insurance implications caused by incidental abnormalities (found in 10% of GP referrals for computed tomography12) should not be overlooked. Box 2 (see below) summarises some important adult tumour risks.

Box 2: Some tumour risks in adults to bear in mind

  • Annual incidence in population: 6–10 per 100,000
  • Headache presentation to GP: 1 in 1000
  • Headache presentation to GP if migraine or tension-type headache can be diagnosed: 1 in 2000
  • Risk of tumour in isolated headache where diagnosis cannot be made after 8 weeks: approx 8 in 1000
  • Risk of discovering incidental abnormality on GP investigation: 10 in 100
  • Suggested risk of tumour at which investigation should take place: 1 in 100
  • Risk of secondary brain cancer with primary elsewhere: 20–40%

8 Be aware of a menstrual relationship with migraine

Of women experiencing migraine, up to 14% will have migraine exclusively when menstruating, although over one half will report that headaches are more likely in association with their period.13 Menstrual migraine usually occurs on day 1 (± 2) of menstruation and the association is stronger for migraine without aura than for migraine with aura. It is thought to result from falling oestrogen levels.

Menstrual migraine should be treated as for normal migraine; however, specific treatment can be helpful and options are:

  • prophylactic anti-inflammatory tablets 24 hours before anticipated onset of attack—naproxen is the drug of choice, or mefenamic acid if there is concurrent dysmenorrhoea
  • tricycling the pill (taking three packets in succession without a pill-free interval) if on oral contraception, in the absence of migraine with aura—this prevents any reduction in oestrogen levels
  • a transdermal 100 µg oestrogen patch 48 hours prior to menstruation, repeated after 3 days for a total of two applications. Alternatively, oestradiol gel can be applied daily, which gives more stable levels
  • small doses of prophylactic triptans. The treatment of choice is frovatriptan, which has a long half-life; for example, half a tablet a day commencing 24 hours before the expected onset of attack14
  • injected medroxyprogesterone inhibits ovulation and can help in some cases. The progestogen-only pill is usually not effective.

9 Be aware of a patient’s quality of life and functioning when prescribing preventative therapy for migraine

There are no specific indications for using preventative treatment in migraine, and the impact of attacks on the patient's quality of life is the best guide. Beta-blockers (propranolol), topiramate, and amitriptyline are drugs of first choice for prophylactic treatment.11 Medication should be taken for at least 8 weeks before benefit can be assessed.14

Alternative non-drug therapies include behavioural and physical therapies such as biofeedback, relaxation therapy, cervical manipulation, and cranial massage, but there is no supportive evidence base. NICE CG150 on Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management indicates that acupuncture may be considered, and it notes some supportive evidence for a daily dose of riboflavin.11

10 Bear in mind that children can have migraine too

Migraine is the most common type of headache in children and is often overlooked. It has a peak incidence at the age of 15 years in females and 10 years in males.15 If a parent has migraine, there is an 80% chance the child will be affected. A large UK school clinical study reported an annual prevalence rate of 10.6%.16 Table 4 (see below) lists the important features of migraine in adults and children.

Table 4: The main features of migraine in adults and children
Migraine in adultsMigraine in children
Usually unilateralUsually bilateral
Moderate to severe headacheMild to severe headache. May be inferred from behaviour in younger children
Throbbing/stabbing nature of painPain can take any form
Lasts for 4–72 hoursUsually lasts for less than 4 hours
Associated symptoms include nausea, vomiting, photophobia, or phonophobiaAssociated symptoms are not always present
Can be associated with an aura in 30%Aura less common
Frequently prevents normal activityFrequently prevents normal activity

Further reading

The British Association for the Study of Headache for UK headache management guidelines Exeter Headache Clinic has clinical guidelines for the management of headache and comprehensive patient information treatment sheets that can be downloaded. Useful information can also be obtained from patient support groups:


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