There are many different types of headaches, including tension headaches, migraine headaches, ice pick headaches, and others. The cause, duration, and intensity can vary by 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 days in 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.
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Visual of different types of headaches. Design by Maya Chastain.

The visual above is a general representation of where headaches may occur, but many can exist outside the areas noted.

Tension headache

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 headache

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 15 minutes to 3 hours. During a cluster, people may experience headaches anywhere from one every other day to eight per day, usually around the same time each day. After one headache resolves, another will soon follow.

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 more common in the spring and fall. They are also three times more common in men.

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

About one-third of those with migraine experience visual disturbances before the headache phase starts. Known as migraine aura, it may cause you to see:

  • flashing or shimmering lights
  • zigzag lines
  • stars
  • 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 three times more likely to develop migraine than people assigned male at birth. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have an increased risk of migraine.

Common migraine triggers include environmental factors, such as:

  • sleep disruption
  • dehydration
  • skipped meals
  • some foods
  • hormone fluctuations
  • exposure to chemicals

Hemicrania continua

Hemicrania continua is a moderate headache on one side of your head that lasts continuously for at least 3 months. You might feel periods of increased intensity a few times per day.

Researchers estimate it accounts for about 1% of headaches. It’s most common in young adults.

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.

Thunderclap headache

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:

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.

Hormone headache

People who menstruate may experience headaches that are linked to hormonal fluctuations. Menstruation, using birth control pills, and pregnancy all affect estrogen levels, which can cause a headache.

Those headaches associated with the menstrual cycle are also known as menstrual migraine. These can occur between 3 days before your period to the third day of your period and during ovulation.

Caffeine headache

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 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 few minutes or several hours.

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.

Hypertension headache

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.

Medical emergency

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
  • nosebleeds
  • 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:

  • acetaminophen
  • ibuprofen
  • aspirin
  • naproxen

They’re also more common with medications that contain caffeine.

Post-traumatic headache

Post-traumatic headaches can develop after any head injury. These headaches feel like tension headaches or migraine episodes. They usually last up to 6 to 12 months after your injury occurs. They can become chronic.

Spinal headache

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:

  • forehead
  • temples
  • upper neck
  • back of the head

Research estimates that spinal headaches follow a lumbar puncture between 10 and 40% of the time. Onset usually begins within 2 to 3 days but could start several months later. It can also occur following an epidural or spontaneously.

This headache typically worsens when you are upright and improves when you lie down.

Other symptoms of spinal headache include:

  • nausea
  • neck pain
  • dizziness
  • 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.

If you need help finding a primary care doctor, then check out our FindCare tool here.

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:

  • duration
  • intensity
  • location
  • possible triggers

Because there are many types of headaches, many methods might be used to diagnose which type you are experiencing. Doctors must determine whether you have a primary or secondary headache to recommend effective treatment.

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.

Tension 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.

Cluster headache

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:

Hemicrania continua

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 three times daily with meals usually relieves symptoms within 24 hours.

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:

Thunderclap headache

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:

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.

Hormone headache

OTC pain relievers like naproxen (Aleve) or prescription medications like frovatriptan (Frova) can work to manage pain.

Alternative remedies may have a role in decreasing overall headaches per month. The following may help:

Caffeine headache

Keeping your caffeine intake at a steady, reasonable level — or quitting it entirely — can prevent these headaches from happening.

Exertion headache

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.

Hypertension headache

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.

Post-traumatic headache

Doctors often prescribe the following medications to manage these headaches:

  • triptans
  • sumatriptan (Imitrex)
  • beta-blockers
  • amitriptyline

Spinal headache

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:

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.

Primary headaches don’t cause permanent disability or death. However, they could be debilitating temporarily if they are frequent and severe enough. These headache types can often be managed when diagnosed and treated.

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.

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