What Causes the Different Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

Mature woman with head in hands and eyes closed
Getty Images/Christopher Robbins

If you struggle with headaches, you are not alone. In fact, more than half of the world’s adult population has experienced a headache at least once in the past year. Headaches come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from dull throbbing to sharp pain, and lasting from just a few minutes to several days.

Each type of headache has a different cause, but all of them can interfere with your day, and sometimes even with your quality of life. Understanding the characteristics of each headache type will help you manage your condition 

Types of Headaches

There are two primary classifications for headaches:

  • Primary headache is a condition that isn't associated with an underlying illness
  • Secondary headaches are a symptom of a condition

This is important to know because most headaches are not caused by any serious underlying medical issue. But, different health problems (allergies, brain tumors, meningitis, and more) can cause secondary headaches.

You might need treatment to manage the symptoms of a primary headache. And if you have secondary headaches, you will need treatment for the underlying medical issue that's causing your headaches.

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes a headache can be a symptom of a potentially serious health condition, such as high blood pressure, severe dehydration, vascular disease, or even stroke.

If you have other neurological signs, new-onset headaches, systemic symptoms like fever or weight loss, changes in your headache pattern, or severe/acute onset, you need to make an appointment to see your doctor.

Sometimes you may also need medical intervention even if there isn't a serious cause of your headaches.

Talk to your doctor if your headaches:

  • Increase in frequency
  • Cause increasing pain
  • Interfere with your regular activities

Always seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the following:

  • Sudden head pain that's the "worst of your life"
  • A headache that lasts more than 72 hours with fewer than four pain-free hours
  • Loss of vision or consciousness
  • Uncontrollable vomiting during a headache

Tension Headache

Experts estimate that as many as two-thirds of American adults suffer from tension headaches, the most common type of primary headache. While tension headaches have long been associated with emotional stress, the International Headache Society says that studies “strongly suggest a neurobiological basis to…Tension-type headache, at least for its more severe subtypes.” Women are more likely than men to have tension headaches.

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Mild to moderate pain in the neck, face, or head
  • Constant (not throbbing) pain
  • Pain on both sides of the head

If you have more days with tension headaches than without them, the headaches are considered chronic tension headaches. Chronic tension headaches aren’t as common as episodic tension headaches, which is when headache-free days outnumber days with tension headaches.

Treatment

Tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin, other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), or acetaminophen. Lifestyle changes, such as relaxation techniques and exercise, may also help.

Caffeine Headache

This type of headache comes not from caffeine itself, but from caffeine withdrawal. Symptoms of a caffeine withdrawal headache are very similar to those of a migraine and can include other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal such as:

  • Irritability
  • Concentration problems
  • Anxiety or sadness
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff or achy muscles

Treatment

If you are experiencing a caffeine withdrawal headache, the best short-term treatment is to have a caffeinated beverage. And if you are trying to reduce your caffeine intake, it is best to do so gradually in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Migraine Headache

Migraine is a specific type of primary headache that can be painful and disabling. It usually lasts for hours or days. The cause of migraines is not fully understood, but some experts have linked genetics and environmental factors to the condition.

There are four stages to a migraine: prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome, and you may or may not experience all of these.

Symptoms of a migraine headache can include:

  • Severe throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Hormone Headaches

For some females, fluctuations in estrogen levels can trigger hormone headaches, which is a subtype of migraine.

Hormone levels can change for a number of reasons, including:

  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Menopause
  • Taking oral contraceptives
  • Lactation

Sometimes, this type of headache is called a “menstrual migraine.” Symptoms are the same as those of a non-menstrual migraine and appear anywhere from two days before to three days after the start of your period. The headache may last a few days.

Treatment

Migraine headaches may improve with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin, but sometimes prescription medication is needed. If you are experiencing migraine symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications to be used during the migraine (like triptans) or preventatives like beta-blockers or botulinum toxin (Botox) injections.

Menstrual migraines are treated with the same prescription medications that are used to treat migraines, and sometimes the treatments that are used during a migraine episode can be effective when taken in the days prior to menstruation. In some cases, oral contraceptives or estrogen replacement therapies are prescribed to relieve menstrual migraines. but this doesn't work for everyone.

Some people who have migraines may experience improvement with alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture, or biofeedback.

Sinus Headache

A sinus headache is a type of secondary headache that results from a sinus infection (sinusitis). Actual sinus headaches are not common, and both tension headaches and migraines may be mistaken for sinus headaches.

Symptoms of a sinus headache can include:

  • Facial pain or pressure around your sinuses (in your forehead, brow, or cheeks)
  • Nasal congestion and thick, discolored nasal discharge
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Increased pain/pressure if you bend forward

Treatment

The best way to get rid of this type of headache is to treat the underlying sinus issue. Over-the-counter medications may provide some relief, along with nasal decongestants to allow mucus to drain and to reduce swelling. Saline nasal spray and vaporizers can moisten the air and soothe your sinuses.

Your doctor can determine the cause of your sinusitis and assess whether it could go away on its own or if you need antibiotics or anti-fungal drugs. 

Rebound Headache

Rebound headaches can occur if you frequently take pain medications and stop them suddenly or take them irregularly. This type of headache, also called a medication overuse headache, can occur alongside tension, cluster, or migraine headaches.

Certain drugs, including narcotics and barbiturate-containing analgesics, are more likely to cause rebound headaches.

Treatment

The primary treatment for rebound headaches is to stop the medication that is causing them. Depending on the medication, your doctor may incorporate other drugs, non-pharmaceutical treatments, or physical therapy to help you with pain management as you discontinue the medicine.

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is one of the most painful types of primary headache. The condition gets its name from its frequent bouts—or clusters—of headache episodes. People who have cluster headaches can go months or years between attacks.

Symptoms of a cluster headache can include:

  • Extreme pain on one side of the head, often in or around one eye
  • Excessive watering and redness in the affected eye
  • Stuffy or runny nose on the affected side

Each headache in the cluster can last from 15 to 180 minutes, and they often occur at the same time each day for weeks or months on end.

Treatment

Cluster headaches do not improve with over-the-counter medications.

Treatments can include nasal oxygen, Emgality (galcanezumab), triptans, calcium channel blockers, or corticosteroids. Nerve blocks may be used when the pain is severe or when other treatments aren't effective.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you get rid of a headache?

Because different types of headaches respond to different treatments, it is important to know what type of headache you are experiencing and what may be triggering your pain. If you suffer from frequent headache episodes, your doctor can help you determine what type you have and the best treatments. It is helpful to identify the pattern of your pain so you can discuss symptoms accurately with a healthcare professional.

Why do I wake up with a headache?

Morning headaches can be caused by a number of factors, such as insomnia, stress, tension, alcohol use, nighttime tooth grinding, or sleep apnea. If you frequently wake up with a headache, talk with your doctor about whether a sleep disorder or other concern could be responsible.

When should you worry about a headache?

Sometimes, headaches are a sign of a more serious medical condition. Talk with your doctor if your headache is preventing you from participating in everyday activities, if your pain is sudden or severe, or if you lose consciousness during a headache episode.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Rizzoli P, Mullally WJ. Headache. Am J Med. 2018;131(1):17-24. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2017.09.005