Types of Headaches: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What are different types of headaches

What are different types of headaches?

There are different types of headaches and location, each with a unique set of symptoms and causes. The majority are transient and hardly reason for worry. However, understanding the type of headache a person is having might help them decide how to treat it and whether to consult a doctor.

While they can occasionally be painful and incapacitating, the majority of them can be treated with straightforward painkillers and will disappear within a few hours. But recurrent bouts or specific types of headaches could point to a more serious health condition.

More than 150 different types of headaches are defined by the International Classification of Headache Disorders, which is further divided into primary and secondary headaches.

A primary headache is not due to another condition — it is the condition itself. Examples include migraine and tension headaches. In contrast, a secondary headache has a separate underlying cause, such as a head injury or sudden caffeine withdrawal.

This article discusses some of the most common types of headaches, as well as their causes, remedies, and recommendations for seeking medical attention.

Table of Contents

Migraine

Intense throbbing pain on one side of the head is a common symptom of a migraine headache. A person’s heightened sensitivity to sound, light, and scent may occur. Also frequent are nausea and vomiting. About 25% of migraine sufferers have an aura before the headache begins. These sensory and visual disruptions normally last between 5 and 60 minutes, and they include:

  • seeing zig-zagging lines, flickering lights, or spots
  • partial loss of vision
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • muscle weakness
  • difficulty speaking or finding words

Be mindful that symptoms of an aura might potentially point to a meningitis or stroke. Anyone encountering them for the first time needs to get help right once. Each incidence of a migraine headache can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and they frequently come again. It is a lifelong condition for many people.

The causes of migraines are not entirely understood by medical professionals. But it frequently runs in families, and it affects people with specific pre-existing conditions more frequently, such depression and epilepsy.

Triggers of migraine:

  • stress and anxiety
  • sleep disruption
  • hormonal changes
  • skipping meals
  • dehydration
  • some foods and medications
  • bright lights and loud noise

Treatment

Treatment will depend on various factors, including how severe the symptoms are, how often they occur, and whether the person experiences nausea and vomiting.

Migraine headache treatment may include:

  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, or acetaminophen
  • triptans, such as sumatriptan, which need a prescription
  • antiemetics, such as metoclopramide, to manage nausea and vomiting

Neurostimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, may also help.

A person can also ease attacks by:

  • resting in a dark, quiet place
  • placing an ice pack or a cold cloth on the forehead
  • drinking water

Patients with chronic migraines should discuss preventative care with their physician. A healthcare professional may diagnose chronic migraine if a patient has an episode on more than 15 days per month or if symptoms occur on at least 8 days a month for 3 months.

Drug options for migraine prevention include:

  • topiramate (Topamax)
  • propranolol
  • amitriptyline

Other management choices to consider are dietary changes, stress management, and acupuncture.

Tension headache

Most people get tension-type headaches at some point. They appear as a continuous, dull headache on both sides of the head. Additional symptoms can include:

  • tenderness of the face, head, neck, and shoulders
  • a feeling of pressure behind the eyes
  • sensitivity to light and sound

These headaches can last from 30 minutes to several hours. What causes tension headaches is unclear, but stress, anxiety, and depression are common triggers. Other potential triggers include:

  • dehydration
  • loud noise
  • lack of exercise
  • insufficient quality sleep
  • posture
  • skipped meals
  • eye strain

Treatment

Pain relief using over-the-counter (OTC) medications including ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin is typically extremely effective. People who get headaches more than 15 days a month for 90 days should see a doctor.

Lifestyle changes and some treatments may help prevent tension headaches. These can include:

  • getting enough sleep
  • regular exercise and stretching
  • improving sitting and standing posture
  • having an eye test
  • management of stress, anxiety, or depression
  • acupuncture

See Tension Headache – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches are painful and often occur. In contrast to women, men are six times more likely to be affected. People often speak of a sharp, stabbing, or scorching pain behind or around one eye.

Other symptoms can include:

  • watering eyes
  • swollen eyelid
  • a blocked or a runny nose
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • restlessness or agitation

Cluster headaches often last between 15 minutes and 3 hours and start quickly and without notice. A person may have up to 8 attacks per day. These assaults can last for weeks or months and typically happen in daily clusters. They frequently begin a few hours after going to sleep at night and at regular intervals.

Anyone exhibiting these symptoms, which occasionally resemble hay fever, should see a doctor. Cluster headaches are more common in smokers, while their exact etiology is unknown. Alcohol should be avoided when under attack.

Treatment

Treatment aims to reduce the severity and frequency of the attacks. Options include:

  • oxygen therapy
  • sumatriptan
  • verapamil
  • steroids
  • melatonin
  • lithium

Deep-brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation also show promise in treating cluster headaches that do not respond to medication.

Exertional headache

Exertional headaches are due to strenuous physical exercise, with the following triggers:

  • running
  • jumping
  • weight lifting
  • sexual intercourse
  • bouts of coughing or sneezing

These headaches are usually very short-lived but can sometimes last up to 2 days. They present as a throbbing pain throughout the head and are more common in those with a family history of migraine.

Individuals experiencing cluster headaches for the first time should see speak with a doctor, as they could be a sign of something serious.

Treatment

Treatment for exertional headaches includes using:

  • OTC pain relief
  • beta-blockers, such as propanolol
  • indomethacin

Sometimes, exertional headaches may result from cardiovascular problems. If so, a doctor may recommend tests to check a person’s cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health.

Hypnic headaches

A hypnic headache is an uncommon ailment that commonly manifests in people’s 50s, however it can appear earlier. These headaches, which some people refer to as “alarm clock headaches,” cause people to wake up at night. A hypnic headache consists of mild-to-moderate throbbing pain, usually in both sides of the head. It can last for up to 3 hours, while other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

Each week, there may be multiple attacks on a person. There are no recognized triggers for hypnic headaches, and their etiology is unclear. Hypnic headaches aren’t harmful, but an older adult who has any strange headaches for the first time needs to consult a doctor. In order to rule out migraine and cluster headaches, a doctor may do so.

Treatment

Treatment options for hypnic headaches include:

  • caffeine
  • indomethacin
  • lithium

Medication-overuse headache

A medication-overuse headache (MOH) — sometimes known as a rebound headache — is the most common type of secondary headache. A MOH features frequent or daily headaches with symptoms similar to those of tension headaches or migraine.

Painkillers first help these headaches, but then they come back after some time. If a patient has a headache issue and has taken painkillers at least 15 days in a month, a doctor may diagnose MOH.

Drugs that can cause MOH include:

  • opioids
  • acetaminophen
  • triptans, such as sumatriptan
  • NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen

A MOH can still occur despite taking these medications. However, a MOH mainly seems to develop in people taking painkillers specifically to treat a headache.

Treatment

Stopping the medication that is causing the headaches is the only way to treat MOH. Anyone should only quit taking medicine, though, with a doctor’s approval. The doctor can offer planning assistance and could suggest substitute medications to lessen the withdrawal symptoms.

After stopping the drug, a person is likely to experience:

  • worsened headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • increased heart rate
  • low blood pressure
  • sleep disturbance
  • restlessness, anxiety, and nervousness

To assist control these symptoms of nausea and vomiting, a doctor may prescribe medicine, such as antiemetics. Although they can continue up to 4 weeks, the symptoms typically endure for 2 to 10 days.

A doctor will advise on suitable pain relief medication to use after resolving a MOH.

The following steps can help prevent MOH:

  • avoiding the use of codeine and opioids
  • limiting the use of pain relief medication for headaches
  • using preventive medications for a chronic migraine

Sinus headaches

Sinusitis, an infection of the sinuses, can cause sinus headaches. Usually, an allergy or an infection is the cause. A deep, throbbing ache around the eyes, cheekbones, and forehead is one of the symptoms. Movement or straining may make the pain worse, and it occasionally spreads to the jaw and teeth.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • facial pressure or pain
  • reduced sense of smell
  • nasal discharge
  • a blocked nose
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • ear pain
  • bad breath
  • cough
  • dental pain
  • a general feeling of being unwell

Sinus headaches are quite rare. If there are no nasal symptoms, a headache of this nature is more likely to be a migraine attack.

Treatment

Sinusitis usually goes away within 2–3 weeks.

Treatment options include:

  • rest
  • drinking fluids
  • OTC pain relief
  • nasal decongestants
  • saltwater nasal sprays or solutions from the pharmacy
  • antihistamines
  • steroid nasal sprays, available on prescription
  • antibiotics, if a doctor finds there is a bacterial infection

People should speak with a doctor if symptoms do not improve within a week or become severe. To diagnose the underlying cause of sinusitis, a doctor may refer an individual to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. In some cases, minor surgery may be necessary to drain the sinuses.

Tips for preventing sinusitis include avoiding smoking and known triggers. See 5 Home Remedies for Sinus Infection Treatment

Headaches can occasionally result with a high caffeine intake of more than 400 milligrams (mg), or around 4 cups of coffee per day. Withdrawal headaches resembling migraines have been reported in patients who have consumed more than 200 mg of caffeine per day for more than two weeks. These often appear 12 to 24 hours after a sudden halt. Peaking at 20 to 51 hours, they can persist for 2 to 9 days.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • reduced mood or irritability
  • nausea

The effects of caffeine vary from person to person, but reducing intake could decrease the risk of getting headaches. Limiting caffeine consumption may help people who have chronic migraine. See 7 Things Happen When You Drink Too Much Coffee

Head-injury headaches

A headache can occasionally appear very away or shortly after a head injury. This is usually resolved with over-the-counter pain medication. However, if symptoms are severe or continue to worsen, a person should obtain help right once.

If you have suffered a significant head injury or if any of the following symptoms appear after one, contact an ambulance right away:

  • unconsciousness
  • seizures
  • vomiting
  • memory loss
  • confusion
  • vision or hearing problems

Post-traumatic headaches can also develop months after the original head injury, making them difficult to diagnose. They can sometimes occur daily and persist for up to 12 months. Even a small blow to the head can result in a traumatic brain injury. Learn more here about how to recognize it and what to do.

Menstrual headaches

Headaches are often due to changes in hormone levels. Migraine may occur around menstruation from changes in estrogen levels. Hormone-related headaches often develop 2 days before or 3 days after a period or during ovulation. Symptoms are similar to migraine without aura, but they can last longer.

Hormone-related headaches can also result from:

  • oral contraceptives
  • menopause
  • pregnancy

Treatment

Treatment for a menstrual headache is the same as the treatment for migraine without aura. Doctors can advise about possible preventive measures, such as:

  • hormonal therapy
  • taking a triptan or NSAID around the time of periods
  • alternative oral contraception plans, such as omitting the pill-free break
  • hormone replacement therapy for those undergoing menopause

See Menstrual Cramps Relief: Natural Ways to Reduce the Pain

Hangover headaches

Drinking too much alcohol might give you a headache the next day or even later that day. These headaches that resemble migraines typically affect both sides of the head and might get worse with activity. Along with a headache from a hangover, nausea and sensitivity to light are possible side effects.

Treatment

Although there is no known treatment for hangovers, symptoms can be lessened by consuming sweet foods and drinking lots of water. OTC medicines may assist in easing or ending the headache. Symptoms of hangovers tend to go away within 72 hours.

Ways of reducing the risk of a hangover include:

  • drinking in moderation
  • not drinking on an empty stomach
  • drinking water between alcoholic beverages and before going to bed

See 7 Unpleasant Facts About Hangovers

When to see a doctor

Although headaches are a frequent issue, most individuals can manage them with over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen. However, you should see a doctor if you get headaches that are severe, chronic, recurrent, or becoming worse. An individual should seek immediate medical assistance if they have a headache:

  • with confusion or disturbed vision, balance, or speech
  • with numbness or weakness
  • following a significant blow to the head
  • with fever, seizures, or unconsciousness
  • with a stiff neck or rash
  • that starts suddenly and is extremely painful
  • with persistent vomiting

Children who have recurring headaches should also speak with a doctor as soon as possible.

Bottom line

Numerous people can get different types of headaches. Taking OTC painkillers, such as NSAIDs, will frequently make them go away. However, headaches can occasionally be a sign of a medical problem. Cluster, migraine, and medication-overuse headaches are all types of headaches that may benefit from medical help and possibly prescription medication. Anyone who has ongoing headaches should consult a doctor for guidance as they occasionally signify an underlying condition.

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