We’re all too familiar with the pain of the dreaded headache. But even though we tend to use one umbrella term to describe them all, did you know there are actually several different types?
Although the Mayo Clinic defines headaches as “pain in any region of the head,” the cause, duration and intensity of the discomfort can vary, depending on what kind of headache you are experiencing.
Read on to learn how to identify the different types of headaches, what you can do to most effectively ease your symptoms, and whether or not you need to see a doctor.
Tension headaches feel like dull, aching sensations throughout the entire head. Tenderness or sensitivity around the neck, forehead, scalp or shoulder muscles might also occur. Anyone can get this kind of headache, and they’re often triggered by stress. In most instances, an over-the-counter pain reliever is all it takes to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms.
Cluster headaches feel like severe burning and piercing pain around or behind one eye, or on one side of the face. In some cases, swelling, redness and sweating, nasal congestion and tearing can also occur. Cluster headaches happen in a series, with each headache lasting from 15 minutes to three hours. Most people will experience one to four headaches within 24 hours, usually around the same time each day for several days. In the time between outbreaks, people will usually have no symptoms. Your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy, sumatriptan (Imitrex), or local anesthetic (lidocaine) to relieve the pain.
Migraine pain is an intense pulsing that begins from deep in the back of your head and can last for days. The throbbing headache can limit your ability to carry out daily routines and make you more sensitive to light and sound. Nausea and vomiting may also occur. Women are three times more likely to develop migraines than men. Factors like sleep disruption, dehydration, skipped meals, some foods, hormone fluctuations, and exposure to chemicals are other common triggers. If over-the-counter medication fails, your doctor might prescribe triptans to decrease inflammation and change the blood flow in the brain.
Allergy or sinus headaches
Headaches are sometimes the result of allergic reactions. People who have chronic seasonal allergies or sinusitis are most susceptible to these types of headaches. The pain from these headaches is often felt in the sinus area or around the front of your head. Nasal steroid sprays, OTC decongestants such as phenylephrine (Sudafed PE), or antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec D Allergy + Congestion) may help provide relief.
Women commonly experience headaches linked to hormonal fluctuations. Menstruation, birth control pills, and pregnancy all affect your estrogen levels, which can cause severe pain around the head. OTC pain relievers like naproxen (Aleve) or prescription medications like frovatriptan (Frova) can work to alleviate discomfort.
Caffeine affects blood flow to your brain. Having too much can give you a headache, but so can quitting caffeine suddenly. That’s because caffeine is a stimulant: too much will do some damage, but quitting can cause symptoms of withdrawals. Instead, try to progressively wean yourself off of your daily coffee to combat these headaches.
Exertion headaches can have a quick onset after intense physical activity. Weightlifting, running, and sexual intercourse are some of the most common triggers for an exertion headache. It’s thought that these activities increase blood flow to your head, which can lead to a throbbing headache. The good news is that this type of headache usually resolves itself within a few minutes or several hours.
Dangerously high blood pressure can give you a hypertension headache—which signals a medical emergency. Hypertension headaches will usually feel like pulsating pain on both sides of your head and are typically made worse with even slight activity. You may also experience changes in vision, numbness or tingling, nosebleeds, chest pain, or shortness of breath. If you think you’re experiencing a hypertension headache, you should seek immediate medical attention.
Rebound headaches, also known as “medication overuse headaches,” can feel like dull, tension-type headaches, or more intense, like migraines. Almost paradoxically, the overuse of over-the-counter medications can actually lead to more headaches, rather than fewer. Rebound headaches are more likely to occur when medications (like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen) are used more than 15 days out of a month. They’re also more common when someone takes medications that contain caffeine. The only treatment for rebound headaches is to wean yourself off of the medication, slowly but surely. Although the pain may worsen at first, it should subside within a few days.
After head injury, some people may develop post-traumatic headaches. These can feel like migraines or tension-type headaches, and usually last up to 6 to 12 months post-injury. In some cases, post-traumatic headaches can become chronic. Triptans, sumatriptan (Imitrex), beta-blockers, and amitriptyline are often prescribed to control the pain.