Many of us are familiar with some form of the throbbing, uncomfortable, and distracting pain of a headache. There are different types of headaches. The common types of headaches include:
- tension headache
- cluster headache
- migraine headache
- hemicrania continua
- ice pick headache
- thunderclap headache
- allergy or sinus headache (Note: This is not an official headache disorder. Rather, it’s a description of symptoms, which usually involve sinus pressure or pain.)
- hormone headache (also known as menstrual migraine)
- caffeine headache
- exertion headache
- hypertension headache
- rebound headache
- post-traumatic headache
- spinal headache
Nearly everyone experiences a headache once in a while. The cause, duration, and intensity of this pain can vary according to the type of headache.
IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION NEEDED
In some cases, a headache may require immediate medical attention. Seek immediate medical care if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms alongside your headache:
- stiff neck
- the worst headache you’ve ever had
- slurred speech
- fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
- paralysis in any part of your body
- visual loss
If your headache is less severe, read on to learn how to identify the type of headache you may be experiencing and what you can do to ease your symptoms.
Primary headaches occur when the pain in your head is the condition. In other words, your headache isn’t being triggered by something that your body is dealing with, like illness or allergies.
These headaches can be episodic or chronic:
- Episodic headaches may occur every so often but no more than 15 days in one month. They can last anywhere from half an hour to several hours.
- Chronic headaches are more consistent. They occur more than 15 days in a month. In these cases, a pain management plan is necessary.
If you have a tension headache, you may feel a dull, aching sensation all over your head. It isn’t throbbing. Tenderness or sensitivity around your neck, forehead, scalp, or shoulder muscles also might occur.
Anyone can get a tension headache. Stress often triggers them.
Cluster headaches are characterized by severe burning and piercing pain. They occur around or behind one eye or on one side of the face at a time. Symptoms may include:
- swelling, redness, flushing, and sweating on the side that’s affected by the headache
- nasal congestion and eye tearing on the same side as the headache
These headaches occur in a series. Each individual headache can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. During a cluster, most people experience one to four headaches a day, usually around the same time each day. After one headache resolves, another will soon follow.
A series of cluster headaches can be daily for months at a time. In the months between clusters, people are symptom-free. Cluster headaches are more commonTrusted Source in the spring and fall. They are also three timesTrusted Source more common in men.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes cluster headaches.
Migraine pain is an intense pulsing from deep within your head. This pain can last for days. Migraine headaches significantly limit your ability to carry out your daily routine.
Migraine pain is throbbing and usually one-sided. People with migraine headaches are often sensitive to light and sound. Nausea and vomiting also usually occur.
Some migraine headaches are preceded by visual disturbances. About one-thirdTrusted Source of people will experience these symptoms before the headache starts. Known as a migraine aura, it may cause you to see:
- flashing lights
- shimmering lights
- zigzag lines
- blind spots
Auras can also include tingling on one side of your face or in one arm and trouble speaking.
POSSIBLE MEDICAL EMERGENCY
The symptoms of a stroke can also mimic a migraine headache. If any of these symptoms are new to you, seek immediate medical attention.
Migraine headaches might run in your family, or they can be associated with other nervous system conditions. Women are three times more likelyTrusted Source to develop migraine than men. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have an increased risk of migraine.
Common migraine triggers include environmental factors, such as:
- sleep disruption
- skipped meals
- some foods
- hormone fluctuations
- exposure to chemicals
Hemicrania continua is a moderate headache on one side of your head that lasts continuously for at least 3 months. You might feel periods of increased intensity a few times per day.
Researchers estimate it accounts for about 1 percentTrusted Source of headaches. It’s twice as common in women.
This type of headache may also be accompanied by:
- tearing or eye redness
- nasal congestion or runny nose
- eyelid drooping
- forehead sweating
- restlessness or agitation
Ice pick headache
Primary stabbing headaches, or ice pick headaches, are characterized by short, intense stabbing pains in your head lasting only a few seconds.
These headaches can occur a few times per day and come on without warning. Ice pick headaches could feel like a single stab or multiple stabs in succession.
Ice pick headaches usually move around to different parts of your head. If you’re experiencing ice pick headaches that always occur in the same spot, it might be a symptom of an underlying condition.
A thunderclap headache is an extremely severe headache that comes on rapidly, reaching peak intensity in under a minute. It may be benign, but it could also be a symptom of a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention.
In some cases, a thunderclap headache could indicate:
- blood vessel tears, ruptures, or blockages
- brain injury
- reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS)
- vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
- pituitary apoplexy (bleeding into or loss of blood from an organ)
The first time you experience a thunderclap headache, seek immediate medical attention. If a doctor determines that your headache is not caused by another condition, you can discuss a treatment plan for possible future thunderclap headaches.
Secondary headaches are a symptom of something else that is going on in your body. If the trigger of your secondary headache is ongoing, your headaches can become chronic. Treating the primary cause generally brings headache relief.
Allergy or sinus headache
Headaches sometimes happen as a result of an allergic reaction. The pain from these headaches is often focused in your sinus area and in the front of your head.
Migraine headaches are commonly misdiagnosed as sinus headaches. In fact, up to 90 percent of “sinus headaches” are actually migraine, according to the American Migraine Foundation. People who have chronic seasonal allergies or sinusitis are susceptible to these kinds of headaches.
Those headaches associated specifically with the menstrual cycle are also known as menstrual migraine. These can occur right before, during, or right after your period, as well as during ovulation
Caffeine affects blood flow to your brain. Having too much can give you a headache, as can quitting caffeine “cold turkey.” People who have frequent migraine headaches are at risk of triggering a headache due to caffeine use.
Exertion headaches happen quickly after periods of intense physical activity. Weightlifting, running, and sexual intercourse are all common triggers for an exertion headache. It’s thought that these activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, which can lead to a throbbing headache on both sides of your head.
An exertion headache shouldn’t last too long. This type of headache usually resolves within a few minutes or several hours.
High blood pressure can cause a headache. This kind of headache signals an emergency. It occurs when your blood pressure becomes dangerously high.
A hypertension headache will usually occur on both sides of your head and is typically worse with any activity. It often has a pulsating quality
If you think you’re experiencing a hypertension headache, seek immediate medical attention. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you have:
- changes in vision
- numbness or tingling
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
You’re more likely to develop this type of headache if you’re treating high blood pressure
Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headaches, can feel like a dull, tension-type headache, or they may feel more intensely painful, like a migraine headache.
You may be more susceptible to this type of headache if you frequently use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Overuse of these medications leads to more headaches, rather than fewer.
Rebound headaches are likelier to occur anytime OTC medications are used more than 15 days out of a month. These OTC medications include:
They’re also more common with medications that contain caffeine.
Post-traumatic headaches can develop after any type of head injury. These headaches feel like migraine or tension headaches. They usually last up to 6 to 12 months after your injury occurs. They can become chronic.
A spinal headache is the result of low cerebrospinal fluid pressure following a lumbar puncture. For this reason, it’s also known as a postdural puncture headache. You might feel this headache in your:
- upper neck
- back of the head
Research estimates that spinal headaches follow a lumbar puncture between 10 and 40 percentTrusted Source of the time. Onset usually begins within 2 to 3 days, but could start several months later.
Other symptoms of spinal headache include:
- neck pain
- visual changes
- hearing loss
- radiating pain in the arms
In most cases, episodic headaches will go away within 48 hours. If you have a headache that lasts more than 2 days or that increases in intensity, see a doctor for help.
If you’re getting headaches more than 15 days out of the month over a period of 3 months, you might have a chronic headache condition. Even if you’re able to manage the pain with OTC medications, see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Headaches can be a symptom of more serious health conditions, and some do require treatment beyond OTC medications and home remedies.
Because there are many types of headaches, there are many methods that might be used to diagnose which type of headache you are experiencing. It’s important to figure out whether you’re having a primary or secondary headache to receive effective treatment.
You can expect your headache diagnosis to begin with a physical exam and a thorough medical history. If possible, keep a “headache journal” in the weeks leading up to your doctor’s appointment. Document each of your headaches, including:
- possible triggers
Your primary care doctor might also refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist. For some headache types, you could require diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause. These tests can include:
Different types of headaches will be managed differently. Treatments could range from simple dietary adjustments to invasive procedures performed by a medical professional.
Not everyone will respond to the same treatments, even for the same types of headaches. If you’re experiencing headaches that you’re not able to treat on your own, speak with a doctor about putting together a treatment plan.
An OTC pain reliever may be all it takes to relieve your occasional headache symptoms. OTC pain relievers include:
If OTC medications aren’t providing relief, your doctor may recommend prescription medication, such as:
When a tension headache becomes chronic, a different course of action may be suggested to address the underlying headache trigger.
A doctor may recommend the following to provide relief for the symptoms:
After a diagnosis is made, your doctor will work with you to develop a prevention plan. The following may put your cluster headaches into a period of remission:
If OTC pain relievers don’t reduce migraine pain during an attack, a doctor might prescribe triptans. Triptans are drugs that decrease inflammation and change the flow of blood within your brain. They come in the form of nasal sprays, pills, and injections.
Popular options include:
- sumatriptan (Imitrex)
- rizatriptan (Maxalt, Axert)
Speak with a doctor about taking a daily medication to prevent migraine headaches if you experience headaches that are:
- debilitating more than 3 days a month
- somewhat debilitating 4 days a month
- lasting longer than 6 days a month
According to a 2019 review, preventive migraine medications are significantly underused: Only 3 to 13 percent of those with migraine take preventive medication, while up to 38 percent actually need it.
Preventing migraine greatly improves quality of life and productivity.
Useful preventive migraine medications include: