What are Primary and Secondary Headaches?

John Miller Physiotherapist

Article by John Miller

What are Primary and Secondary Headaches?

The International Headache Society classifies headaches into two categories: Primary and Secondary.

Primary headaches are independent of any other issues and encompass migraines, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches are triggered by an underlying problem. They can include post-whiplash headaches, neck headaches, jaw headaches, and drug withdrawal headaches. An example of a secondary headache is the “ice cream headache,” resulting from extreme cold within your mouth. In essence, a secondary headache is a symptom of an underlying issue rather than the root cause. Treating a secondary headache involves addressing the source. For instance, you might need to loosen stiff upper neck joints or refrain from eating ice cream!

Mixed Headache-Migraine Types

It’s possible to experience one, two, or even more types of headaches or migraines concurrently.


One type of headache may lead to another or overlap with another. For instance, a painful neck could cause increased muscular tension, subsequently elevating your blood pressure. In this scenario, you could be dealing with a neck headache, a tension headache, and a migraine all at once!

In our experience, pinpointing the primary source of your headache or migraine is crucial for effective management.

Other Potential Causes of Your Headaches or Migraines

Your physiotherapist and doctor can assist in diagnosing the source of your headaches. Sometimes, specific tests can confirm your diagnosis, while other times, it might involve a process of elimination.

Regrettably, a small percentage of patients may experience severe underlying causes of their head pain that require investigation. These causes might include brain tumours, aneurysms, meningitis, and other systemic illnesses. See Headache Red Flags.

Your physiotherapist or doctor may suggest completing a headache or migraine questionnaire to aid in classification, diagnosis, and treatment. After completing these questionnaires, share the results with your healthcare provider to facilitate accurate diagnosis and treatment.

At PhysioWorks, we evaluate, diagnose, and treat neck, whiplash, stress, and jaw headaches.

For an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, it’s recommended to consult your healthcare practitioner.

More info: Headaches & Migraines

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