Vascular migraine is an outdated term to describe any headache associated with changes to the blood vessels in the head or neck. Migraine, cluster headache, and toxic or illness-related headaches all have links with changes to the blood vessels.

This article will discuss what a vascular migraine is, its associated symptoms, and available treatment options. It will also discuss ways to help prevent them from occurring.

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A vascular headache, or migraine, refers to a group of headache conditions that occur due to changes in blood vessels in the head or neck. They often involve throbbing pain and swelling or dilation of the blood vessels.

Organizations, such as the International Headache Society, no longer use the term “vascular headache.”

Healthcare professionals now classify vascular migraine headaches as either primary or secondary headaches.

However, primary headaches are conditions in their own right, and include:

  • migraine
  • tension-type headache
  • cluster headache

Secondary headaches occur as a result of another condition, such as hypertension, head trauma, and sinusitis.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, a migraine is a disabling neurological condition that may affect at least 39 million people in the United States. Additionally, migraine may be chronic or episodic.

They also have distinct phases, including:

  1. Prodrome: This typically occurs before the migraine and includes symptoms of tiredness, fatigue, mood swings, or food cravings.
  2. Aura: This occurs in about 20% of cases and typically causes vision issues.
  3. Headache: This is pain on one or both sides of the head lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
  4. Postdrome: This occurs after the headache and can include symptoms such as fatigue, sensitivity to light, body aches, and concentration issues

A person typically does not experience every phase of a migraine.

Symptoms of a migraine can last 4 hours to several days and often include:

  • moderate or severe head pain
  • vomiting or nausea
  • pain located on one or both sides of the head, front or back, or around the eyes
  • worsening pain after physical activity
  • pain that interferes with activities, school, or work
  • pounding, pulsating, or throbbing sensations
  • sensitivity to light, smell, or noise

Doctors do not fully understand what exact cause of migraine, though it tends to run in families. People can have different triggers that cause migraine to occur.

Learn more about migraine triggers.

Tension headaches are common, affecting up to 30% to 78% of the population. People may describe the pain as a pressing or tightening sensation that can range from mild-to-moderate intensity. A person may also experience light sensitivity.

Tension headaches can be infrequent or chronic, which we define below.

  • Infrequent: A person will experience 10 episodes a year.
  • Frequent: Individuals will experience 10 or more episodes that occur around 1–14 days per month.
  • Chronic: People will experience an episode for 15 days or more a month for longer than 3 months.

Some causes of tension headaches include:

  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • not eating on time

According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD), cluster headaches are a severe and uncommon form of primary neurovascular headaches.

They occur on one side of the head above the eye or by the temple in most cases and can last from 30 minutes to 2 hours. People may describe the pain as burning, stabbing, and searing.

Other symptoms include:

  • watery eyes
  • facial sweating
  • nasal congestion
  • eyelid swelling
  • eyelid drooping

They are most likely to occur during the spring and fall, while triggers of cluster headaches can include seasonal changes, smoking, or drinking alcohol.

There are a variety of illnesses that can cause a headache to occur. Fevers from illness, such as the flu and other conditions, can cause a headache to occur.

Symptoms that have associations with illness-related headaches can vary based on the condition affecting the person. Typically, following treatment of the underlying condition, the headache will also resolve.

Treatment options will vary based on the type of headache.

The treatments for secondary headaches will depend on the underlying cause. A person should talk with a doctor about the options that will work best for them.

People can try the following measures to help ease headache symptoms:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • resting
  • trying to relax, if possible
  • taking over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen

Individuals may also wish to avoid:

  • drinking alcohol
  • skipping meals
  • sleeping for longer than they usually would
  • looking at screens for extended periods

In some cases, a person may be able to avoid triggers associated with cluster or migraine headaches.

For some types of headache, individuals may require prescription medication

Treatment for migraine includes preventative treatment, such as:

  • avoiding triggers
  • stress management strategies
  • taking preventative medication, such as erenumab, lasmiditan, ubrogepant, and lasmiditan

Additionally, a person can seek symptom relief by using:

  • triptans
  • ergotamines
  • analgesics, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
  • gepants

Learn more about tips for instant migraine relief.

Treatment for cluster headaches includes:

  • sumatriptan injections
  • sumatriptan nasal spray
  • oxygen therapy

Learn more about treatment for cluster headaches.

People may not be able to prevent all headaches from occurring. However, they could take steps to avoid them, including taking preventive medications.

For both migraine and cluster headaches, a person can avoid known triggers to decrease the number of headaches they have.

The American Migraine Foundation notes that individuals can take steps to avoid stress, eat foods that do not trigger their migraine, and take medication to help prevent migraine headaches.

At the onset of a cluster headache, a person may be able to use an oxygen mask with 7–15 liters of oxygen every minute to help stop the attack. A doctor may also recommend other steps to prevent headaches from occurring, including avoiding smoking and alcohol.

Headaches that are related to illness may be unavoidable. However, treating the underlying condition may help prevent a headache from occurring.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Risk factors can vary between the types of headaches.

Migraine can affect any population. However, they are three times more likely to occur in females than males. By comparison, males are more likely to develop cluster headaches than females.

Risk factors for developing migraine include:

  • being female
  • having a family history of migraine
  • have other medical conditions, such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and epilepsy

A doctor will need to understand a person’s symptoms, family history, and response to medications they take. They will likely ask several questions to help them determine the cause of the pain.

The diagnosis criteria can vary based on the type of headache:

  • Migraine: A doctor will ask about a person’s medical history and ask about their symptoms. They will also perform a physical and neurological exam.
  • Tension headaches: A healthcare professional will diagnose tension headaches based on symptoms.
  • Cluster headaches: There are no tests to diagnose cluster headaches. However, a doctor will diagnose them from a person’s headache patterns.

A doctor may mistake a migraine for a cluster headache. According to NORD, a person needs to have at least five migraine headaches that meet the following conditions:

  • severe pain around the eye lasting 15 minutes to 3 hours
  • attacks occur up to eight times a day or once every other day
  • includes symptoms such as congestion, swelling of the eye, drooping eyelid, or facial sweating

Diagnosis for an illness-related headache will vary based on the symptoms a person has and the underlying condition.

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience symptoms associated with migraines or cluster headaches. A healthcare professional will need to diagnose the condition and discuss possible treatment options.

When headaches occur as part of another infection, individuals should speak with their doctor if:

  • the headaches keep recurring
  • painkillers are not effective
  • the headaches get worse
  • they experience pain at the front or side of the head, as it could be a migraine or cluster headache
  • they experience symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, or noise sensitivity

Health experts now categorize vascular migraine as primary or secondary headaches, which can include migraine, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and illness headaches, among other causes.

The symptoms and treatment options will vary depending on the type of headache a person is experiencing.

However, people can take several steps to help ease symptoms, such as drinking plenty of fluids, resting, taking painkillers, and considering prescription preventive treatment if there are frequent headaches.