Nearly everyone experiences head pain once in a while. However, there are different types of headaches. The cause, duration, and intensity of this pain can vary according to each type.
Many of us are familiar with some form of the throbbing, uncomfortable, and distracting pain of a headache. There are different types of headaches. The common types include:
- tension headache
- cluster headache
- migraine headache
- hemicrania continua
- ice pick headache
- thunderclap headache
- allergy or sinus headache
- hormone headache (also known as menstrual migraine)
- caffeine headache
- exertion headache
- hypertension headache
- rebound headache
- post-traumatic headache
- spinal headache
Immediate medical attention needed
In some cases, a headache may require immediate medical attention. Seek immediate medical care if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms alongside your headache:
If your headache is less severe, read on to learn how to identify the type you may be experiencing and what you can do to ease your symptoms.
Primary headaches occur when the pain in your head is the condition. In other words, your headache isn’t triggered by something your body is dealing with, like illness or allergies.
These headaches can be episodic or chronic:
- Episodic headaches may occur occasionally but no more than
15 daysin one month. They can last anywhere from half an hour to several hours.
- Chronic headaches are more consistent. They occur more than 15 days a month. In these cases, a pain management plan is necessary.
The visual above is a general representation of where headaches may occur, but many can exist outside the areas noted.
If you have a tension headache, you may feel a dull, aching sensation all over your head. Tenderness or sensitivity around your neck, forehead, scalp, or shoulder muscles also might occur.
Anyone can get a tension headache. Stress often triggers them.
Cluster headaches may occur with severe burning and piercing pain. They occur around or behind one eye or on one side of the face at a time. Symptoms may include:
- swelling, redness, flushing, and sweating on the side that’s affected by the headache
- nasal congestion and eye tearing on the same side as the headache
These headaches occur in a series. Each headache can last from
A series of cluster headaches can be daily for months at a time. In the months between clusters, people are symptom-free. Cluster headaches are
Doctors aren’t sure what causes cluster headaches.
Migraine is a headache disorder that causes intense pulsing pain deep within your head. Migraine episodes may last between 4 and 72 hours untreated, significantly limiting your ability to carry out your daily routine. During one, you may experience:
- throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head
- light sensitivity
- sound sensitivity
- nausea and vomiting
- flashing or shimmering lights
- zigzag lines
- blind spots
Auras can also include tingling on one side of your face or in one arm and trouble speaking.
Possible medical emergency
The symptoms of a stroke can also mimic a migraine episode. If any of these symptoms are new to you, seek immediate medical attention.
Migraine might run in your family, or the condition can be associated with other nervous system conditions. According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), people assigned female at birth are
Common migraine triggers include environmental factors, such as:
- sleep disruption
- skipped meals
- some foods
- hormone fluctuations
- exposure to chemicals
Researchers estimate it accounts for about
This type of headache may also be accompanied by:
- tearing or eye redness
- nasal congestion or runny nose
- eyelid drooping
- forehead sweating
- miosis or excessive shrinking of the pupil
- restlessness or agitation
Ice pick headache
Primary stabbing headaches, or ice pick headaches, are characterized by short, intense stabbing pains in your head lasting only a few seconds.
These headaches can occur a few times daily and come on without warning. Ice pick headaches could feel like a single stab or multiple stabs in succession.
Ice pick headaches usually move to different parts of your head. If you have ice pick headaches that always occur in the same spot, it might be a symptom of an underlying condition.
A thunderclap headache is a severe headache that comes on rapidly, reaching peak intensity in under a minute. It may be benign, but it could also be a symptom of a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention.
In some cases, a thunderclap headache could indicate:
- blood vessel tears, ruptures, or blockages
- brain injury
- reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS)
- vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
- pituitary apoplexy (bleeding into or loss of blood from an organ)
The first time you experience a thunderclap headache, seek immediate medical attention. If a doctor determines that another condition does not cause your headache, you can discuss a treatment plan for possible future thunderclap headaches.
Secondary headaches are a symptom of something else that is going on in your body. If the trigger of your secondary headache is ongoing, your headaches can become chronic. Treating the primary cause generally brings headache relief.
Allergy or sinus headache
Headaches sometimes happen as a result of an allergic reaction. The pain from these headaches is often focused in your sinus area and the front of your head.
Migraine is sometimes misdiagnosed as sinus headaches. People with chronic seasonal allergies or sinusitis are susceptible to these headaches.
Caffeine affects blood flow to your brain. Too much can give you a headache, as can quitting caffeine “cold turkey.” People who have frequent migraine headaches are at risk of triggering a headache due to caffeine use.
When you’re used to exposing your brain to a certain amount of caffeine, a stimulant, each day, you might get a headache if you don’t get caffeine. This may be because caffeine changes your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can trigger a headache.
Exertion headaches happen quickly after periods of intense physical activity. Weightlifting, running, and sexual intercourse are all common triggers for an exertion headache. It’s thought that these activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, leading to a throbbing headache on both sides of your head.
An exertion headache shouldn’t last too long. This type of headache usually resolves within a
These headaches may also occur due to a secondary cause. If this type of headache is new to you or lasts longer, it may be best to seek medical attention for a diagnosis.
High blood pressure can cause a headache. This kind of headache signals an emergency. It occurs in some people when the blood pressure becomes dangerously high (greater than 180/120). In most cases, hypertension does not cause a headache.
A hypertension headache usually occurs on both sides of your head and is typically worse with any activity. It often has a pulsating quality.
If you think you’re experiencing a hypertension headache, seek immediate medical attention. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you have:
- changes in vision
- numbness or tingling
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
You’re more likely to develop this type of headache if you’re treating high blood pressure.
Medication overuse headache
Medication overuse headaches, also known as rebound headaches, can feel like a dull, tension-type headache, or they may feel more intensely painful, like a migraine episode.
You may be more susceptible to this type of headache if you frequently use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Overuse of these medications leads to more headaches rather than fewer.
These headaches are likelier to occur anytime OTC medications are used more than 15 days a month. These OTC medications include:
They’re also more common with medications that contain caffeine.
Post-traumatic headaches can develop after any head injury. These headaches feel like tension headaches or migraine episodes. They usually last up to
A spinal headache results from low cerebrospinal fluid pressure following a lumbar puncture. For this reason, it’s also known as a post-dural puncture headache. You might feel this headache in your:
- upper neck
- back of the head
Research estimates that spinal headaches follow a lumbar puncture between
Other symptoms of spinal headache include:
- neck pain
- visual changes
- tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- hearing loss
- radiating pain in the arms
In most cases, episodic headaches will go away within 48 hours. If you have a headache lasting more than 2 days or increasing in intensity, consider talking with a doctor for help.
If you’re getting headaches more than 15 days out of the month over 3 months, you might have a chronic headache condition. Even if you can manage the pain with OTC medications, consider talking with a doctor for a diagnosis.
Headaches can be a symptom of more serious health conditions, and some require treatment beyond OTC medications and home remedies.
Because there are many types of headaches, many methods might be used to diagnose which type of headache you are experiencing. Doctomust to determine whether you have a primary or secondary headache to recommend effective treatment.
You can expect your headache diagnosis to begin with a physical exam and medical history. If possible, keep a “headache journal” in the weeks leading up to your doctor’s appointment. Document each of your headaches, including:
- possible triggers
A primary care doctor might also refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist. You could require diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause for some headache types. These tests can include:
Different types of headaches are managed differently. Treatments could range from dietary adjustments to procedures performed by a medical professional.
Not everyone will respond to the same treatments, even for the same types of headaches. If you’re experiencing headaches you cannot treat on your own, speak with a doctor about putting together a treatment plan.
Read on to learn more about common treatments for each type of headache.
An OTC pain reliever may be all it takes to relieve your occasional headache symptoms. OTC pain relievers include:
If OTC medications aren’t providing relief, a doctor may recommend prescription medication, such as:
If tension headaches become chronic, a doctor may suggest treatment to manage the underlying trigger.
A doctor may recommend therapy or medication to provide relief for your symptoms. These may include:
After diagnosis, a doctor will work with you to develop a prevention plan. The following may put your cluster headaches into a period of remission:
If OTC pain relievers don’t reduce migraine pain during an attack, a doctor might prescribe triptans. Triptans decrease inflammation and change the flow of blood within your brain. They come in the form of nasal sprays, pills, and injections.
Popular options include:
- sumatriptan (Imitrex)
- rizatriptan (Maxalt, Axert)
Consider speaking with a doctor about taking a daily medication to prevent migraine episodes if you experience headaches that are:
- debilitating more than 3 days a month
- somewhat debilitating 4 days a month
- lasting longer than 6 days a month
According to a 2019 review, preventive migraine medications are significantly underused: Only 3 to 13% of those with migraine take preventive medication, while up to 38% may need it.
Preventing migraine dramatically improves the quality of life and productivity.
Helpful preventive migraine medications include:
One of the defining characteristics of hemicrania continua is a complete response to indomethacin, a drug in the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) family. A low dose
Indomethacin can cause side effects, especially at higher doses, so doctors recommend taking the lowest effective dose.
Ice pick headache
Ice pick headaches can be challenging to treat because they last a short duration. Most ice pick headaches are over before you can do much about them.
Preventive measures may reduce the frequency or intensity of future headaches. Treatment could include:
If your thunderclap headache results from another condition, you must treat the underlying condition.
If your thunderclap headache is not caused by something else, it’s a primary thunderclap headache. Treatments for thunderclap headaches include:
Allergy or sinus headache
Sinus headaches are treated by thinning out the mucus that builds up and causes sinus pressure. Options include:
- nasal steroid sprays
- OTC decongestants like phenylephrine (Sudafed PE)
- antihistamines like cetirizine (Zyrtec)
A sinus headache can also be a symptom of a sinus infection. Depending on the cause, a doctor may prescribe medication to help clear the infection and relieve your headache and other symptoms.
OTC pain relievers like naproxen (Aleve) or prescription medications like frovatriptan (Frova) can work to manage pain.
- relaxation techniques and managing stress
- regular exercise, such as yoga
- sleep hygiene
- eating a modified diet
- hormone therapy, such as an oral contraceptive
Keeping your caffeine intake at a steady, reasonable level — or quitting it entirely — can prevent these headaches from happening.
OTC pain relievers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil), typically ease symptoms.
If you develop exertion headaches often, consider talking with a doctor. In some cases, exertion headaches may indicate a serious underlying condition.
These types of headaches typically go away soon with better blood pressure management. They shouldn’t reoccur as long as high blood pressure continues to be managed.
Medication overuse headache
The only treatment for medication overuse headaches is to wean yourself off the medication you’ve been taking to manage pain. Although the pain may initially worsen, it should completely subside within a few days.
Taking a daily preventive medication that doesn’t cause medication overuse headaches may prevent them from occurring.
Doctors often prescribe the following medications to manage these headaches:
- sumatriptan (Imitrex)
Initial treatment for spinal headaches usually includes pain relievers and hydration. It also helps to avoid being in an upright position. Symptoms typically go away on their own after a week or two.
In some cases, an epidural blood patch might be used. This is a procedure in which a small amount of blood is taken from your body and injected back into your epidural space. It can help stop cerebrospinal fluid from leaking, stopping the headaches.
Many headaches can be managed with preventive measures, but methods differ by headache type. Some headache types might be prevented with medication, while the same medication might cause others.
You can discuss preventive treatments with a doctor to find a plan that fits your needs. Headache prevention could reduce headache frequency or intensity or prevent headaches altogether.
Lifestyle changes that may prevent or improve headaches can include:
- getting enough sleep on a regular schedule
- getting enough to eat, and eating balanced meals
- staying hydrated
- getting adequate regular exercise
- managing stress
Migraine headaches may be prevented with calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) medication. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved one CGRP medication, galcanezumab (Emgality), to prevent cluster headaches.
Your outlook depends on the type of headache you’re having.
The outlook for secondary headaches depends on the underlying cause. Some can be managed through simple routine changes, while others could be fatal without immediate medical assistance.
If you’re experiencing recurring or severe headaches. An accurate diagnosis will be the first step in understanding and managing your headaches in the future.