Headaches that Arise from Your Nervous System

Does My Headache Signal Something In My Brain?

Headaches That Arise from the Nervous System. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

 A headache is sometimes the first signal that something else is going on in the body, especially in the nervous system where your brain, spinal cord, and nerves are closely connected. Here we will examine some disorders of the nervous system that can be associated with a secondary headache - a headache caused by an underlying medical condition, meaning it does not exist on its own. 


A stroke is a medical emergency and is defined as either an ischemic stroke, in which blood flow is interrupted to the brain, or a hemorrhagic stroke, in which there is bleeding into the brain.

In one study in Cephalagia, of 240 patients with a stroke, 38 percent had a headache. The location and intensity of headache varied based on the type of stroke.

It's interesting to note that headache was the most common in patients presenting with a vertebrobasilar stroke - a stroke caused by bleeding into or restricted blood flow to the vertebral and basilar arteries of the neck. The symptoms of a vertebrobasilar stroke may include:

  • vertigo
  • drop attacks
  • difficulty swallowing
  • visual disturbances


Meningitis refers to infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, often caused by a bacteria or virus. Diagnosis is made by a lumbar puncture, and treatment varies based on the type of infection. Neck stiffness usually accompanies the headache. Other potential symptoms of meningitis may include:

  • fever
  • flu-like symptoms, like joint or muscle aches
  • sensitivity to light
  • rash
  • confusion

    Spinal Headache

    A spinal headache is a severe headache that may occur when a patient undergoes a lumbar puncture. It is caused by a cerebrospinal fluid leak, and the head pain is felt when standing up. In the case of a spinal headache, your doctor may suggest lying down, intravenous fluids, caffeine, or even a blood patch.

    A blood patch entails a surgery in which your own blood is injected into the puncture site where your epidural was done to compress the hole, preventing any further spinal fluid leak.

    Increased Intracranial Pressure

    Increased cerebrospinal fluid pressure may result from a brain tumor, infection, or a condition known as hydrocephalus in which there is an excess amount of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain. Hydrocephalus is usually treated with a shunt which diverts the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid to other parts of the body.

    Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension

    Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension is a medical condition that results from increased spinal fluid pressure (also known as ICP or intracranial pressure) around the brain in the absence of a tumor or other brain disorder. The cause is largely unknown but the majority of cases occur in obese women of childbearing years especially in those who have recently gained weight. Nearly all patients with the condition present to the emergency room or doctor’s office with a complaint of headache.

    Cervicogenic Headache

    A cervicogenic headache occurs when head pain is referred from the neck. This type of headache is typically one-sided or unilateral like a migraine, but unlike a migraine has features involving the neck.

    Head pain may be brought on by certain neck movements or by compression of one of the nerves that supplies the head and neck.

    Cranial Nerve Disorders

    Trigeminal neuralgia affects the fifth of twelve cranial nerves and causes severe, sharp pain, typically on one side of the face. Episodes last several seconds but are usually repetitive and brought on by any contact with the cheek such as

    • applying makeup
    • brushing your teeth
    • wind or cold exposure.

    Bell’s palsy is another cranial nerve disorder that leads to one-sided or unilateral facial paralysis and can sometimes present with a same-sided headache.

    Multiple Sclerosis

    Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease in which the myelin sheath, a protective or insulating layer surrounding nerve cells, is attacked.

    In MS, there can be a variety of neurological symptoms based on the location in the brain or spinal cord where the myelin is damaged. More common symptoms include:

    • blurry vision
    • bladder and bowel dysfunction
    • muscle weakness
    • abnormal sensations such as numbness and tingling
    • thinking and memory problems.

    Headaches and migraines are not uncommon complaints in patients with MS. Rarely, headache may even be a presenting symptom of MS - meaning the symptom that leads a patient to visit their doctor.

    The Bottom Line

    This list is not exclusive but encompasses the majority of secondary headaches of the nervous system. The take home point here is that while a headache could be your usual tension-type headache or migraine, it could also be the first sign of an underlying medical disorder. Make sure to watch out for headache warning signs and review all your symptoms with your doctor when you have head pain so that a secondary headache is not missed.


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    National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke. Headache: Hope Through Research. Accessed June 26th 2013.

    Stella CL, Jodicke CD, How HY, Harkness UF, Sibai BM. Postpartum headache: is your work-up complete? Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2007;196(4):318.e1-7.

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