7 Types of Headaches

Quincy AdamMigraine Learn

Woman with headache
The next time your head hurts…and before you rush to the medicine cabinet for relief…STOP. Take time to assess your pain and figure out what type of headache you have. The reason is this: all headaches are not alike.

While most headaches are the common tension variety, some headaches are symptoms of more serious health problems. In those cases, your headache may serve as an important indicator that you need to contact your primary care physician…immediately. In a few instances, you should be seeking emergency treatment.

Here are seven types of headaches you need to know about:

Primary Headaches

Headaches in this classification are not symptomatic of an underlying medical condition. While the pain and associated symptoms can become intense, they usually are not considered life threatening.

1. Tension Headaches

These are the most common types of primary headaches. They can range from episodic (fewer than 15 days per month) to chronic (more than 15 days a month, sometimes daily). With episodic tension headaches, the pain is typically mild to moderate. Chronic tension headaches usually are more intense with the pain often described as throbbing. Although unpleasant, tension headaches generally are not associated with the litany of symptoms that may come with migraines.

While treated with analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the best long-term solution may be to reduce your stress and tension.

2. Migraines

Migraines are the second most common type of primary headache. It’s a throbbing or pulsating pain usually focused on one side of the head (although bilateral pain is possible). Nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises often accompany the pain.

Many—but not all patients—suffer four distinct phases: prodrome, aura, attack and postdrome. Typically, the prodrome is the warning phase that a migraine is coming on. With aura, patients experience flashing lights and sometimes weakness or tingling in the arm and/or leg of one side. A migraine attack can last up to 72 hours, followed by the recovery stage (postdrome) when many people feel drained.

3.  Cluster Headaches

As the name suggests, cluster headaches are a series of recurring headaches over a period of days, weeks and even months. They are the rarest and the least understood type of primary headaches. They also tend to afflict more men than women. The pain, described as piercing, is usually located behind the eye or on one side of the head. While some scientists have looked for a genetic factor, research is limited because cluster headaches are rare, and it’s difficult to find enough patients to study.1

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches are symptoms of underlying medical conditions, head injury and illness. The headache is usually just one of several symptoms. Because the underlying cause can be severe and even life-threatening, secondary headaches require immediate medical attention. There are many causes associated with secondary headaches. Here is a small sampling:

4. Head and Neck Trauma Headaches

The causes of trauma headaches include concussion, whiplash, intracranial hemorrhage (ruptured vein or artery or pooling of blood in the brain). Other symptoms include blurry vision, nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness, disorientation, ringing in the ears and speech and memory problems.

5. Cranial or Cervical Vascular Headaches

There are several causes for these headaches. These include ischemic stroke and non-traumatic intracranial hemorrhage, often due to hypertensive damage to blood vessels or a ruptured aneurysm. Other causes are carotid or vertebral artery pain and blood clots. Onset can be sudden and severe, often described as a thunderclap, or appear similar to a tension headache. Additional symptoms are partial paralysis, trouble walking or speaking and blurred or lost vision.

6. Rebound Headaches

Although they are more often called Medication Overuse Headaches (MOH), the cause may be either overuse or stopping medications cold turkey. Rebound headaches are often associated with transformed migraines or mixed headache syndrome. Intense, frequent migraines lead to medication overuse. Suddenly, the headaches feel more like tension headaches and occur daily. To complicate treatment, when you stop using drugs the headache pain is likely to increase. It usually requires a long, gradual withdrawal to break this cycle.

7. Sinus Headaches

With a sinus headache, it can feel as though your whole face hurts. That’s because your sinus cavity is inflamed or infected. You may experience sinus pressure, mucus discharge (discolored when you have an infection) and fever. While most often the result of allergies, a sinus obstruction creates a breeding ground for bacteria, which may require antibiotics treatment.

When you have a headache, make sure you first determine whether it’s a primary or secondary headache. If it’s a secondary headache, you may need to seek immediate medical attention. While primary headaches are generally not life-threatening, you should consult your doctor on how best to prevent and alleviate your symptoms.

1Schürks M. “Genetics of cluster headache.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20425202. Accessed April 4, 2016.