The Most Common Types of Headaches

Headaches are one of the most common types of chronic pain. They're right up there with back pain and nerve pain. Sometimes recurrent headaches are symptoms of other chronic pain diagnoses, such as chronic neck pain or fibromyalgia. Many people, however, suffer from chronic headaches without having any other major medical problems.

Woman with closed eyes holding her hand to her temple
Eric Audras / ONOKY / Getty Images

The three most common types of chronic headaches are migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. The underlying causes for each type of headache vary, so pain manifests in very different and distinct ways. Medication is usually the treatment method of choice for chronic headaches, but a number of different complementary and alternative treatments may also be effective.


The exact cause of migraine headaches is still under debate, but researchers agree that they are neurological by nature. Formerly, migraines were thought to be caused by dilation of blood vessels in the brain, but more recent research suggests that they may be caused by changes in brain activity at the cellular level. A migraine can be triggered by external factors such as:

  • caffeine withdrawal
  • overexertion or fatigue
  • smoking
  • missed meals
  • dehydration

Migraines cause severe headache pain, often on one side of the head. Unlike other types of headaches, however, migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms that can include one or more of the following:

  • visual disturbances, such as auras or flashing lights
  • sensitivity to light
  • sensitivity to sound
  • sensitivity to smells
  • pulsating quality to the pain
  • pain worsened by routine physical activity, such as moving around or bending over
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fatigue

Migraines can be treated with over-the-counter medication such as NSAIDs, but chronic and severe migraines may require prescription medication. These include tricyclic antidepressants and beta blockers. A number of alternative treatments may help too, such as yoga and acupuncture.

Tension Headaches

A tension headache usually feels like a band of pressure around the head and may be accompanied by pain in the neck and shoulders.

How can you tell if your headache is a tension headache? Tension headaches are often felt all over the head and are frequently described as a dull pressure that feels more intense around the temples and the back of the neck. This type of headache, which has no neurological symptoms, can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.

While the exact cause of tension headaches is not certain, the most common triggers include stress and musculoskeletal issues.

Depending on the severity of a tension headache, over-the-counter or prescription doses of NSAIDs or other simple analgesics are often effective. Regular use of tricyclic antidepressants may keep tension headaches at bay. Complimentary treatments such as meditation and massage may also help to alleviate tension headache pain.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are the least common of the three. They're a bit of a medical mystery. They may be caused by a complex series of activation in certain areas of the brain. Cluster headaches differ from migraines and tension headaches because they occur in short bursts over a period of time.

This type of headache may feel sharp or have a burning sensation. Like migraines, they are neurological. However, their accompanying symptoms are much different. They include:

  • pain felt over or behind one eye
  • watery eye
  • red or puffy eye on the painful side of the head
  • droopy eyelid on the painful side of the head
  • restlessness or agitation

Cluster headaches are short-lived, thus require specific types of medication prescribed by a healthcare provider that have a rapid onset of action. Preventative medications include corticosteroids and antiepileptics, and some healthcare providers use oxygen therapy. Some people find relief with dietary supplements such as melatonin. Before you take any dietary supplement, consult your healthcare provider, as it may react with certain prescriptions and lead to complications.​

Coping With Chronic Headaches

Like many other chronic conditions, headaches can seriously disrupt your daily routine and quality of life. Many people who suffer from headaches are forced to make lifestyle changes to accommodate headache pain. While medication and alternative treatments can provide major pain relief, it's important to be an advocate for your own health. Regardless of the type of headache you suffer from, stay on top of your pain and keep up with healthcare provider's appointments.

1 Source
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  1. Ahmed F. Headache disorders: differentiating and managing the common subtypesBr J Pain. 2012;6(3):124–132. doi:10.1177/2049463712459691

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.