Trust our experts

Headaches and migraines cause mild to severe pain that can last for hours or days.

Headaches don’t cause lasting damage, but they can impact your ability to take part in daily activities. They can affect your mental health as well. The headache team at UW Health combines the resources of a large health system with one-on-one attention to get you back to doing what you love.

Our headache clinics are led by a team of neurologists. We use the latest research and therapies to diagnose and treat your headaches. We treat both adults and children at locations close to home.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Understanding your symptoms

Types of headache:

Headaches and migraines cause pain in the face and head along with other symptoms. Types of headaches we diagnose and treat include:

Severe pain on one side of the head. They can occur up to eight times a day but last less than four hours.

Headaches are moderate to severe, often one-sided and throbbing. They can be associated with nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.

Headaches are dull, mild to moderate and affect both sides of the head.

A condition that causes intense pain in the face.

More about migraines 

Doctors don’t yet have a complete understanding of what causes migraines, but we do know that migraines run in families. It isn't clear why some people get them and others don't.

Different people have different symptoms. Activity, light, noise or odors may make your headache worse. Pain may move from one side of your head to the other or you may feel pain on both sides of your head at the same time. 

Some people have an aura before a migraine starts. When you have an aura, you may see spots, wavy lines or flashing lights. Your hands, arms or face may tingle or feel numb. The aura usually starts about 30 minutes before a migraine.

Anxiety and depression 

If you feel anxious or depressed, talk with your doctor. A counselor can work with you to manage these feelings. Treating anxiety and depression may reduce how often you get migraines.

Making a diagnosis

To diagnose your headache, your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms. They will also do physical and neurological exams. A neurological exam checks your sensory and motor responses. Tools such as lights and a reflex hammer are used to see how your nervous system responds. 

Your doctor may complete blood and imaging tests to rule out other medical conditions. Imaging tests may include a CT scan or an MRI that lets your doctor see the blood vessels, muscles and tissues in your neck and head.

To help pinpoint the cause of your headaches and determine what is triggering them, your doctor might ask you to keep a headache diary (pdf) and/or a pain log (pdf).

Tests and prevention

Know your triggers, prevent headaches

The more you know about what causes your headaches, the better prepared you are to prevent and stop them.

Many headaches, especially migraines, are triggered by certain foods, activities or changes to your environment. If you know your triggers, you can work to avoid them. Common triggers include:

  • Caffeine

  • Changes in your normal routine

  • Chocolate

  • Dehydration

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

  • Not eating

  • Poor sleep habits

  • Red wine

  • Smoking or cigarette smoke

  • Stress

  • Strong odors

  • Weather changes

Regular exercise and drinking plenty of water can help prevent headaches. Exercise reduces stress and helps relieve muscle tension.

Treatments and research

How we can help

Determining your headache management plan

Your treatment will depend on the type of headaches you’re having. Treatments can include lifestyle changes and medicines. In some cases you may receive injections to alleviate your headache pain. Your care team creates a headache management plan that works for you.

Treatment options include:

Keep a headache diary and avoid your triggers. When you feel a headache starting, rest in a quiet, dark room. Close your eyes. Don't watch TV or read. Put a cold pack or cool cloth on the painful area.

Use exercise, relaxation and positive-thinking methods to manage stress.

You can learn to use your brain to relax. You can control your heart rate and muscle stress to avoid tension and pain. If a migraine begins slowly, you can use biofeedback to remain calm and stop it.

Your doctor may first try over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. If these medicines don’t work, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. Take your medicines as directed. If you take migraine medicines too often, you can get another headache, called a rebound headache. Talk with your doctor if your medicines are not working. 

  • Medicines to stop migraines: These may be over the counter or prescription medicines. If you take the medicine at the first sign you're getting a migraine, you may stop the headache before it starts.

  • Medicines to prevent migraines: These drugs are often called preventive medicines. You get them with a prescription.

If medicines don’t work for your headaches, your doctor might suggest injections. Injections are used to block pain and prevent muscle contractions that can cause headaches. Options include:

  • Botox: Botulinum toxin is injected into a muscle to prevent muscle contractions. 

  • Nerve blocks: An injection of anesthetic on or near a nerve to temporarily block pain. This injection also contains a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation on the nerve. 

  • Trigger point injections: A local anesthetic is injected into a muscle in your shoulder, neck or head to provide headache or migraine relief. They can be performed in your doctor’s office safely while you are awake. 

You may find relief from treatments such as acupuncture and other alternative therapies.


Our doctors take part in research to learn more about headaches and find new treatments. This means you get access to the most up-to-date therapies. If appropriate, you may also take part in clinical trials.

Find clinical trials

Meet our team

Our experts use multiple approaches

Our headache clinics are led by neurologists. They are specialists in treating conditions of the nerves and nervous system. Our doctors are trained to diagnose and treat all types of headaches. 

Our doctors work with other providers to provide complete care for your whole self. Integrative health providers combine Western medicine with natural medicine therapies such as acupuncture and yoga. Interventional pain specialists use injections and nerve blocks to stop and reduce pain. Pain psychologists treat the emotional aspects of chronic pain with strategies like behavioral therapy and guided imagery. Physical therapists use exercises to reduce muscle tension and build strength.

Our providers

Patient and support services

Learn strategies and skills

Living with chronic headache pain is a challenge. Our headache management and coping group teaches strategies and skills you can use to feel better. You also get support in a safe environment. 

Learn to manage your headache pain

  • Dates: Tuesdays, 3–4:30 p.m.

  • Location: Pain Management Clinic, 1102 S. Park St., Madison, Wis.

  • Group Leader: Shilagh Mirgain, PhD

  • Cost: Covered by many health insurance programs

  • More information or to register: Call Michele Johnson at (608) 890-6464


Specialty headache services close to home

The UW Health adult and pediatric headache clinics provide specialized care for all types of headaches.