8 Different Types of Headaches and What Causes Them

Headaches (those pesky blighters) seem to have a knack for popping up at the most inconvenient times, don’t they? Whether it’s the dull ache after a long day staring at screens or the throbbing pain of a full-blown migraine, we’ve all been there, cuppa in hand, trying to soldier on through the discomfort. It’s a bit of a mystery, really, how something as common as a headache can throw such a spanner in the works of our daily lives. Yet, here we are, navigating our way through the fog, hoping for that magical moment when it finally lifts.

But are you aware that there are at least 8 different types of headaches? In the world of headaches, it’s a bit like a crowded pub on a Friday night; there’s quite a variety to contend with. Navigating through these types can feel like a minefield, but understanding them is the first step towards finding some much-needed relief.

Let’s take a look at the different types of headaches, how to identify them, their symptoms, and how to treat them.

8 types of headaches: which one do you have?
8 Different Types of Headaches & Treatments

8 Different Types of Headaches & Treatments

Tension Headaches

Identifying tension headaches involves recognising a distinctive set of symptoms, as these headaches are known for their signature pressure and tightness

Symptoms

  • Dull, Aching Pain: A constant, not throbbing, pain that affects both sides of the head.
  • Tight Band Around Head: Feels as though a tight band is pressing around the forehead or back of the head and neck.
  • Scalp Tenderness: The scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles may feel tender or tight.
  • Pressure Behind the Eyes: A sensation of pressure might be felt behind the eyes, though it’s less common.

Treatments

Treatments for tension headaches generally aim at relieving the pain and preventing future headaches. There are several medications that are normally prescribed for tension headaches: 

  • Over-the-Counter (OTC) Pain Relievers: Paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin are commonly used. However, they should be used sparingly to avoid rebound headaches, and some people need to be careful as to which of those medicines they take, as they can react with other medications or conditions.
  • Prescription Medications: In cases where OTC medications aren’t effective, doctors might prescribe stronger painkillers, muscle relaxants, or even some medications used to treat depression or epilepsy, which can also help prevent tension headaches.

Additionally, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises may also help to reduce tension-type headaches in the long run. These activities serve as potent tools in the management of tension-type headaches by targeting the root cause: stress. These practices encourage relaxation, reduce muscle tension, and improve stress resilience, which are key in mitigating headache symptoms.

A study found that acupuncture is also better than no treatment at all in relieving tension headache. The treatment was proven effective for the prevention of chronic tension headache. 

Migraines

Migraines are a particularly debilitating form of headache characterised by a range of symptoms that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. They typically start from one side and can spread to the entire head as they get more severe. Here’s a breakdown of the symptoms and available treatments:

Symptoms

  • Throbbing or Pulsating Pain: Usually begins on the side of the head (temples)  but can spread to both sides.
  • Sensitivity to Light and Sound: Many people with migraines seek refuge in dark, quiet rooms.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: These symptoms can exacerbate the discomfort caused by the headache.
  • Aura: Before the actual headache pain begins, some individuals experience visual disturbances, such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling on one side of the face or in an arm or leg.
  • Dizziness or Vertigo: A sense of spinning or loss of balance can accompany a migraine.

Treatments

Treating migraines often involves a combination of lifestyle adjustments, medication, and other therapies:

  • Medications: These can be divided into pain-relieving (acute treatment) and preventive medications. Acute treatments include NSAIDs, triptans (which specifically target serotonin receptors to constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation), and antiemetics for nausea. Preventive medications might be considered for those with frequent or severe migraines and can include cardiovascular drugs, antidepressants, and CGRP antagonists.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Identifying and avoiding migraine triggers, such as certain foods, stress, or changes in sleep patterns, is crucial. Maintaining a regular eating and sleeping schedule can also help.
  • Stress Management: Techniques such as yoga, meditation, and biofeedback can help manage the stress that may trigger migraines.
  • Medical Cannabis: The use of medical cannabis for migraines holds promise, with early studies suggesting potential benefits. The study reveals that medical cannabis is 51% more effective in reducing migraines. MC reduced the number of days of migraine after 30 days, and the frequency of migraine headaches per month.

There are risks to the above treatments, and especially with the use of medicines, so those medicines must only be used with the advice of appropriate healthcare professionals. That includes engaging with appropriately qualified and authorised prescribers for prescription medicines. 

Additionally, according to study, yoga therapy can also be an alternative treatment to reduce the frequency and intensity of the headache.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a type of headache known for their extreme pain and the pattern in which they occur, referred to as “cluster periods.” These headaches are relatively rare and are markedly different from more common types such as tension headaches or migraines.

They typically occur around one eye, which usually radiates to the face, head, neck, and shoulders at the same time.

Symptoms 

  • Intense Pain on One Side of the Head: Often around the eye but can spread to other areas on the same side.
  • Restlessness: Individuals may feel agitated and unable to stay still during an attack.
  • Red and Watering Eye: The eye on the affected side may become red, swollen, and produce tears.
  • Nasal Congestion or Runny Nose: This occurs on the affected side of the face.
  • Forehead and Facial Sweating: Typically on the affected side.
  • Swollen Eyelid: The eyelid on the affected side may droop or swell.
  • Sensitivity to Light and Sound: Although not as common as with migraines, some individuals may experience this.
  • Pupil Constriction: The pupil in the affected eye may appear smaller.
  • Episodes of Pain: Attacks can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours and occur up to eight times a day during a cluster period.

Treatments

Treatments for cluster headaches are divided into two main categories: abortive treatments, which aim to stop the headache after it starts, and preventive treatments, which seek to reduce the frequency and severity of the headaches.

Abortive Treatments

  • Oxygen Therapy: Inhaling pure oxygen through a mask can provide significant relief within 15 minutes for many people.
  • Triptans: Sumatriptan (injection or nasal spray) is effective in relieving the pain of a cluster headache quickly.
  • Local Anaesthetics: The nasal application of a local anaesthetic can reduce symptoms.

Preventive Treatments

  • Verapamil: A calcium channel blocker, is the most commonly prescribed medication for preventing cluster headaches.
  • Corticosteroids: Such as prednisone, can provide short-term relief during the start of a cluster period.
  • Lithium Carbonate: Primarily used to treat bipolar disorder, it can be effective in preventing cluster headaches.
  • Melatonin: Has been shown to help regulate the cluster cycle for some people.

Due to the intense pain and specific characteristics of cluster headaches, treatments often need to be aggressive and may require a combination of the above approaches. Management strategies should be discussed and monitored by healthcare professionals, preferably with expertise in treating cluster headaches, to tailor the treatment plan to the individual’s needs.

Additionally, some studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that cannabis, particularly the cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), may offer relief from the pain and frequency of cluster headaches for some individuals. The potential of medical cannabis to treat cluster headaches may lie in its analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties. THC, for example, is known to bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain that are involved in pain perception, potentially reducing the sensation of pain. CBD, on the other hand, may contribute to pain relief through its anti-inflammatory effects and by modulating the endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in pain regulation.

However, the evidence supporting the use of medical cannabis in treating cluster headaches is not as strong when compared to the evidence supporting its use in the treatment of migraines. 

Again, treatments can have side-effects and risks, so you should engage with an appropriately qualified health professional before undertaking any of these treatments above. 

Sinus Headaches

A sinus headache is often associated with sinusitis, which is the inflammation of the sinuses. This condition can lead to pain and pressure in the face, particularly around the sinus areas — the forehead, cheeks, and bridge of the nose. The discomfort typically worsens when you lean forward or wake up in the morning, due to increased pressure from lying down.

Symptoms

  • Facial Pain and Pressure: Pain is usually located around the forehead, cheeks, and bridge of the nose, often worsening with movement such as bending forward.
  • Nasal Congestion: Blocked nasal passages are common, accompanied by a reduced sense of smell.
  • Yellow or Green Nasal Discharge: This can indicate an infection in the sinuses.
  • Fever: A sign of infection, fever may accompany a sinus headache.
  • Fatigue: General tiredness can occur with sinusitis.
  • Dental Pain: Pain in the upper teeth is a less common symptom due to the proximity of the sinus to the tooth roots.

Treatments

The treatment of sinus headaches focuses on relieving the symptoms and addressing the underlying cause, which is often sinusitis. Treatments include:

  • Nasal Decongestants: These can help reduce nasal congestion and relieve the pressure in the sinuses. However, they should not be used for more than a few days to avoid rebound congestion.
  • Saline Nasal Sprays: Saline sprays or irrigations can help to moisten the nasal passages, reduce congestion, and flush out irritants.
  • Steam Inhalation: Breathing in steam from a bowl of hot water can help open up the nasal passages and alleviate congestion.
  • Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce the pain and discomfort associated with sinus headaches.
  • Corticosteroid Nasal Sprays: These can reduce inflammation in the nasal passages, helping to alleviate symptoms.
  • Antibiotics: If the sinus headache is caused by a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. It’s important to note that antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.
  • Warm Compresses: Applying a warm compress to the affected area can help relieve sinus pressure and pain.
  • Hydration: Drinking plenty of fluids can help thin the mucus, promoting drainage from the sinuses.

In addition to these treatments, it’s crucial to address any underlying conditions or triggers contributing to sinusitis and sinus headaches, such as allergies. If sinus headaches persist despite treatment, or if they occur frequently, it may be advisable to see a healthcare professional for further evaluation and management. In some cases, referral to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist might be necessary for more specialised treatment or investigation.

Hormonal Headaches

Hormonal headaches are headaches that occur in relation to fluctuations in hormone levels, particularly oestrogen. These are most commonly experienced by women and often relate to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or the use of hormonal contraception or hormone replacement therapy. The drop in oestrogen levels just before a period is a typical trigger for these headaches, which can range from mild to severe in intensity.

Symptoms

The symptoms of hormonal headaches can vary but often include:

  • Throbbing, pulsating pain: Typically on one side of the head, similar to migraines.
  • Sensitivity to light and sound: Often requiring rest in a dark, quiet room.
  • Nausea and vomiting: In more severe cases, similar again to migraine symptoms.
  • Lethargy or fatigue: A general feeling of tiredness can accompany the headache.
  • Mood changes: Fluctuations in hormone levels can also affect mood, potentially exacerbating the headache experience.

Treatments

The treatment for hormonal headaches often involves managing the symptoms and, if possible, addressing the underlying hormonal fluctuations. Common approaches include:

  • Pain Relief Medication: Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol can provide relief from mild headaches.
  • Triptans: Prescribed specifically for migraines, these can be effective for severe hormonal headaches.
  • Hormonal Treatments: Birth control pills or Menopausal Hormone Therapy (MHT) can help stabilise hormone levels and reduce the frequency of headaches for some women.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate sleep can improve overall health and potentially reduce the frequency and severity of hormonal headaches.

Exertional Headaches

Exertional headaches are headaches that occur during or after physical activity. The activities that can trigger these headaches range from running, lifting weights, and sexual activity to less strenuous activities in some individuals. These headaches are believed to result from increased blood flow to the skull and brain during physical exertion, leading to a temporary increase in intracranial pressure.

Symptoms

  • Sudden onset: The headache typically starts suddenly and can occur during or immediately after physical activity.
  • Throbbing pain: The pain is often described as pulsating and can affect both sides of the head.
  • Short duration: Exertional headaches usually last between 5 minutes and 48 hours.
  • Intensity: The pain can range from moderate to severe, potentially hindering continuation of the activity that triggered it.

Treatments

  • Pain Relief Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or paracetamol can be effective in treating the pain associated with exertional headaches.
  • Prescription Medications: In cases where exertional headaches are frequent or severe, a doctor may prescribe medications that are used to prevent migraines, such as beta-blockers or indomethacin, a type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

It’s important for individuals experiencing exertional headaches, especially if they occur suddenly or are particularly severe, to seek medical evaluation. While exertional headaches are usually primary headaches not caused by another condition, they can sometimes indicate underlying issues such as aneurysms, tumours, or other serious conditions. A healthcare professional can recommend appropriate diagnostic tests to rule out these conditions.

Rebound Headaches

Rebound headaches, also known as medication-overuse headaches (MOH), are caused by the regular, long-term use of headache medication. Essentially, they are a consequence of the very treatment people rely on to alleviate headache pain, leading to a vicious cycle where the headache returns as the medication wears off, prompting more medication use and perpetuating the cycle.

Symptoms

For the most part, the symptoms for rebound headaches depend heavily on changes of medications. Here are the list of the most common symptoms for this type of headaches:

  • Chronic Daily Headaches: Headaches occur on most days, often waking individuals in the early morning.
  • Increased Medication Use: A noticeable increase in the frequency of medication use to treat headaches.
  • Less Effective Medication: Over time, the medication seems less effective, requiring higher or more frequent doses to achieve the same level of relief.
  • Varied Pain: The nature of the headache can change, with pain that may shift in intensity, location, and type.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Experiencing symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, or difficulty sleeping when medication is not taken.

Treatments

The primary approach to treating rebound headaches involves discontinuing or reducing the use of the offending medication. This process should be managed by a healthcare professional, as it can initially lead to withdrawal symptoms and an increase in headache frequency and severity. 

Rebound headaches are a treatable condition, but breaking the cycle of medication overuse requires patience, time, and often a comprehensive approach that includes both medical and lifestyle interventions. Consulting with a doctor experienced in treating headache disorders is crucial to developing an effective treatment plan.

Thunderclap Headaches

Thunderclap headaches are sudden, severe headaches that reach their peak intensity within seconds to a minute, akin to a “clap” of thunder. They are alarming and can indicate a potentially life-threatening condition. Because of their intensity and rapid onset, they are often described as the worst headache ever experienced.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of a thunderclap headache is:

  • Sudden and Severe Pain: The headache comes on abruptly and is extremely severe from the start.

Other possible symptoms, depending on the underlying cause, may include:

  • Nausea or Vomiting: Feeling sick to the stomach or actually being sick.
  • Altered Mental State: Confusion or consciousness changes.
  • Seizures: In some cases, seizures may occur.
  • Neck Stiffness: This can be a sign of bleeding in the brain.
  • Sensitivity to Light: Known as photophobia.

 

Causes

There are a few causes for thunderclap headaches including: 

  • Subarachnoid Haemorrhage: Bleeding into the space surrounding the brain, often due to a ruptured aneurysm.
  • Cerebral Venous Sinus Thrombosis: A blood clot in the brain’s venous sinuses.
  • Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome (RCVS): A condition characterised by the temporary narrowing of the blood vessels in the brain.
  • Arterial Dissection: A tear in one of the arteries of the neck leading to the brain.
  • Pituitary Apoplexy: Bleeding or impaired blood supply to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

Treatments

Given the potential seriousness of conditions associated with thunderclap headaches, immediate medical attention is crucial. Treatment focuses on addressing the underlying cause:

  • Immediate Evaluation: Anyone experiencing a thunderclap headache should seek urgent medical care. A CT scan or lumbar puncture may be necessary to diagnose the cause.
  • Targeted Treatment: If an underlying cause is identified, such as a subarachnoid haemorrhage or arterial dissection, specific treatments will be initiated. This could include surgery, medication to manage blood pressure, or other interventions depending on the condition.
  • Observation: In cases where no underlying cause is found, patients may still need to be monitored closely for a period of time to ensure no late-emerging conditions are missed.

Thunderclap headaches require immediate medical evaluation to rule out or treat potentially life-threatening conditions. The urgency and approach to treatment are dictated by the underlying cause, underscoring the importance of rapid medical attention for anyone experiencing this type of headache.

In conclusion, the exploration of headaches illuminates a diverse and complex landscape, characterised by various types, each with unique symptoms and treatment approaches. From tension to cluster headaches, and the intricacies of hormonal variations, recognising these distinctions is crucial for effective management and relief. 

This knowledge not only facilitates the identification of appropriate interventions but also underscores the importance of personalised healthcare strategies in addressing this common yet multifaceted ailment.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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