Health And Wellness

What Are The Different Types Of Headaches & How Can You Tell The Difference?

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woman experiencing different types of headaches

Did you know there are different types of headaches? Regardless of which kind — from mildly irritating to downright debilitating — headaches are absolutely no fun.

Some of these headaches can be ignored and avoided, while others require the attention of a doctor, special treatments, or diets.

Although most can be alleviated with an over-the-counter medication, there are some types of headaches that may be a cause for concern.

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Understanding different types of headaches is key to managing and curing them. 

Understanding the types, symptoms, and treatments of the most common headaches are the first steps to helping headache sufferers avoid them and cure them.

Did you know the International Classification of Headache Disorders defines more than 150 types of headaches? A bit less overwhelming, headache types are divided into “primary” and “secondary” categories.

Being able to recognize the type of headache a person is experiencing is important when attempting to treat the pain at home or when deciding if it’s best to visit a physician.

Here are both specific types of headaches and how to identify the symptoms of each kind.

How to identify a primary headache.

A primary headache is pain that’s not caused by another issue. Instead, the headache itself is the issue to be treated.

Three examples of primary headaches are migraine, tension, and cluster headaches.

1. Migraine headaches.

A migraine headache will typically present as intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head. The person suffering from migraine may experience sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. They may have accompanying nausea, even vomiting.

Migraines tend to be recurrent and each headache can last up to three days. The frequency of these headaches range from several times a week to once a year.

Migraines are three times more common in females than males. Unfortunately for many, it’s a life-long condition.

The cause of migraine headaches is not fully understood, but there are often triggers. These can include stress, anxiety, sleep disruption, bright lights, loud noise, dehydration, hormone concerns, and as a side effect to certain medications.

Migraine often runs in families, and are also more common in people with other conditions, such as depression and epilepsy.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, can potentially help pain or reduce the duration of the headache. Rest, a cool ice pack on the forehead, and drinking water is sometimes effective.

Doctors can also prescribe medication to relieve nausea and vomiting. Migraine-specific combination prescriptions are available.

Other headache management choices include dietary supplements, meditation, acupuncture, and even Botox injections in some cases.

2. Tension headaches.

Tension headaches are one of the more common head discomforts that most people experience at some point. The pain of a tension headache is often dull, constant, and located on both sides of the head.

There may also be a feeling of pressure behind the eyes or increased sensitivity to light and sound. These headaches commonly last from 30 minutes to several hours.

There is no known specific cause of tension headaches, though stress, anxiety, and depression are common triggers. Other possible causes include dehydration, lack of sleep or exercise, bad posture, as well as eye strain.

OTC painkillers, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin, are usually very effective in stopping or reducing tension headache pain.

Other lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, stretching, improved posture, acupuncture, and management of stress, anxiety, or depression may also be helpful.

3. Cluster headaches.

Cluster headaches are severe, recurrent headaches that are six times more likely to develop in men than in women.

People describe an intense burning or piercing pain behind or around one eye. Other symptoms include watery eyes, swollen eyelids, blocked nose, or increased sensitivity to light and sound.

This pain usually presents suddenly and may last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. The hallmark of these headaches is their occurrence at the same time of day, often a couple of hours after falling asleep.

Although the cause of cluster headaches is unclear, they more often occur in people who smoke.

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How to identify secondary headaches.

A secondary headache is a symptom of something else, often the result of when a medication is stopped, during the menstrual cycle, after ceasing caffeine, aftermath of a hangover, or after a head injury.

1. Medication-overuse headaches.

A medication-overuse headache (MOH) — sometimes known as a “rebound headache” — is the most common type of secondary headache.

A MOH is a frequent or daily headache with symptoms similar to tension or migraine, and can occur when someone takes painkillers for more than 15 days per month.

Medications that may cause MOH include opioid painkillers, acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. Even if someone is taking the medication as directed, a MOH may still occur.

The only treatment for MOH is to stop taking the medication causing the headaches. Anybody stopping medication should do so under the supervision of a doctor.

2. Sinus headaches.

Sinus headaches are caused by a swelling of the sinuses, often resulting from an infection or allergy.

This type of pain is a dull, throbbing ache around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead. The pain may worsen with movement or straining and can sometimes spread to the teeth and jaw.

These headaches are usually accompanied by a thick green or yellow nasal discharge. Other symptoms may include blocked nose, fever, nausea, and light or sound sensitivity.

Sinus headaches can be treated with OTC painkillers and nasal decongestants. People should see a doctor if symptoms do not improve within a week.

3. Caffeine-related headaches.

Heavy caffeine consumption — more than four cups of coffee — can sometimes lead to headaches. For people consuming considerable (more than 200mg) caffeine over two weeks or more, who then abruptly cease use of caffeine, may experience withdrawal or migraine-like headaches.

These typically develop within 24 hours after stopping caffeine.

Other possible symptoms include fatigue, irritability, or nausea. Symptoms are often relieved within an hour of resuming caffeine. The headache will often resolve within seven days after complete withdrawal.

4. Menstrual headaches.

Many headaches are often related to changes in hormone levels. In women, migraine is frequently linked with periods due to natural changes in estrogen levels.

Menstrual migraines develop in the days just before or during a period, or sometimes during ovulation. Hormone-related headaches can also be caused by birth control, menopause, or pregnancy.

Symptoms are similar to migraine without aura, but can last longer.

Treatment for a menstrual headache is the same as the treatment for migraine. Doctors can advise about possible preventive measures, including hormone therapy, taking over-the-counter medications, or taking hormone-replacement therapy.

5. Hangover headaches.

Most of us have been there — consuming too much alcohol can lead to a throbbing headache the next morning, or even later that day.

These migraine-like headaches are usually felt on both sides of the head and are made worse by movement. Someone who has a hangover headache may also experience nausea and sensitivity to light.

There are no cures for hangovers, but it is possible to relieve symptoms by drinking plenty of water and eating sugary foods. OTC painkillers may help reduce or stop the headache pain.

Usually hangover headaches will go away in two to three days. The risk of getting a hangover can be reduced by not drinking on an empty stomach and drinking water between alcoholic beverages and before going to bed.

When should you see a doctor?

It’s important to note the frequency and intensity of consistent headaches. Anyone who experiences severe, persistent, recurrent, or worsening headaches should consult a doctor.

Medical assistance should be sought immediately for:

  • Headaches that come on very suddenly and are extremely painful.
  • Recurring headaches in children.
  • Headaches following a significant blow to the head.
  • Headaches associated with confusion or disturbed vision, balance, or speech.
  • Headaches associated with numbness or weakness.
  • Headaches associated with fever, seizures, or unconsciousness.
  • Headaches accompanied by a stiff neck or rash.
  • Headaches associated with persistent vomiting.

Whether or not you are sufferer of a sinus headache, a migraine headache, or made bad choices at the bar the night before getting a headache, it won’t be pleasant.

By using this guide to better understand the types of headaches and their causes, you can begin to identify the symptoms, causes, and deterrents for the types of headaches you are prone to get.

Here’s hoping you prevent the next one!

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Dr. Lisa Webb is the author of the “Executive Marriage Solution: Translating Boardroom Success into Bedroom Bliss.” She is also an entrepreneur, president and CEO of Body & Mind Consulting, and chief relationship officer at Executive Relationship Advisor.

This article was originally published at Body & Mind TN. Reprinted with permission from the author.