Headaches: Types & Their Differences

Headaches: Types & Their Differences

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90% of people experience tension headaches throughout their lives. Though most of us occasionally experience these common headaches, many also suffer from other types of head pain. Differentiating these headaches from one another, however, can sometimes be a challenge.


Are you trying to decipher which kind of headache you're suffering from? Skim this quick guide to gain a better understanding of the type of headache you may be experiencing.


Tension Headaches


Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Pain is generally felt in the forehead or in the neck and back of the head. The headaches tend to come on gradually, often around midday. The pressure-like pain caused by these headaches is usually mild to moderate and may wax and wane. In addition to pain, they may cause feelings of fatigue, insomnia, irritability, muscle soreness, and difficulty focusing on daily tasks. Though these headaches usually linger for just a few hours, they occasionally stick around for days at a time.


Some people experience tension headaches more than 15 days out of the month. If this is the case, a doctor will likely diagnose you with chronic tension headaches. Roughly 3% of the population experiences these headaches on a chronic basis, with women making up a majority of those diagnosed.


Tight muscles in the neck and scalp often cause tension headaches. Stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, hunger, and nutrient deficiencies can often trigger tension headaches.


Over-the-counter painkillers are generally sufficient for alleviating tension headaches. Sleeping well, reducing stress levels, and relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders may also help prevent future tension headache flare-ups.


Sinus Headaches


Allergies and illnesses can cause your sinuses to become blocked or infected. The pain that results is often called a sinus headache. In addition to feeling a deep pain in the cheeks, forehead, or nose, you may experience a runny nose, facial swelling, and a feeling of plugged ears. If symptoms of a sinus infection are not present, a doctor may run an MRI or CT scan to determine if your sinuses are actually the source of your problem. Migraines, for instance, may also mimic sinus headache pain.


If you have a sinus headache, your doctor will likely provide you with antibiotics. Decongestants and antihistamines can also reduce certain symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers may also help in some cases.


While awaiting a diagnosis, be sure to drink plenty of fluids. A neti pot can also be used to flush thick mucus out of the sinuses, reducing some of the pressure and pain felt in the face.




Migraine headaches are particularly uncomfortable for sufferers. Individuals often struggle with light sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting. Though some migraines may end after a few hours, others may last for a number of days. Though the pain generally begins as a mild ache, it generally progresses into a deep, throbbing pain that may shift around the head. Other symptoms may include fatigue, dizziness, flashes of hot and cold, diarrhea, and blurred vision.


Some individuals experience migraines with auras. These auras may begin before the migraine strikes. Dots, lights, and lines may cloud your field of vision, or you may have difficulty seeing. Your ears may also ring, and tastes and smells may suddenly seem strange or intense.


Certain food and beverage ingredients like alcohol, caffeine, MSG, and nitrates are responsible for triggering migraines in many sufferers. Stress, fatigue, and changes in the weather are also common triggers. Those who are prone to frequent migraines should avoid potential triggers whenever possible.


High estrogen levels can also cause migraines. Women who take birth control pills that are high in estrogen may wish to consider switching to pills with progesterone or lower estrogen levels to reduce the frequency of their hormonal migraines. Hormone replacement therapy may likewise trigger more frequent migraines. If your migraines have gotten noticeably worse since starting HRT, you may wish to consider other options.


Scientists currently believe that migraines are heritable. Research suggests that genetic differences in the brain likely trigger these painful headaches. Triggers are often passed from one family member to another.


If over-the-counter medications do not help treat your migraines, contact a headache specialist to learn more about the preventative and abortive medications that may be available to you. If you struggle with stomach pain and vomiting, ask about nausea treatment as well.


Cluster Headaches


Cluster headaches are a relatively rare headache type affecting roughly 1 in 1000 adults. Though these one-sided headaches tend to last less than 3 hours, they are brutally painful. Nerve pain causes extreme pain around one eye and along the side of the head. Eyelid drooping and tearing of the eye often occur on the affected side of the face. Patients may begin to feel overheated and lights may suddenly seem too bright.


These headaches often follow a cyclic pattern, with attacks beginning during a particular season. Cluster attacks will often happen at the same time of day for a number of weeks. For some, the headaches may go into remission for months or years. For others, the headaches become chronic. Though cluster headaches themselves do not trigger nausea or vomiting, some individuals may experience migraine-like symptoms surrounding an attack.


Cluster headaches are more common in men and those who drink heavily or smoke regularly. Others, however, can also be affected. Symptoms usually appear before the age of 30.


Over-the-counter medications rarely alleviate cluster headache symptoms. Doctors generally offer patients sumatriptan injections, which work quickly to end attacks. Pure oxygen or triptan medications may also work for some patients. A healthcare professional may also prescribe preventative medications to reduce the severity of future attacks. In cases where treatment is ineffective, surgery may be considered.


In Conclusion:


If none of these headaches seems to match the symptoms you're experiencing, consider keeping a headache journal to track the dates, times, triggers, and symptoms of each headache attack. There are actually over 150 different types of headaches; you may, therefore, need to visit a headache specialist to determine the exact cause of your pain. With a professional diagnosis and a proper treatment plan, you can better manage your headaches, leading to a more pain-free life.

Editor, 04/13/2017