4 Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

When your head hurts, the last thing on your mind is likely what kind of headache you have. However, different headaches have different causes and different ways to treat them as well. Before your next headache, learn the difference between the various kinds of headaches so that you can discuss an effective treatment plan with your doctor.

Cluster Headaches

Considered more painful than childbirth, it's no wonder that these kinds of headaches were dubbed "suicide headaches," named for the fact that those suffering with them often had to be placed on suicide watch. The most notable feature of these headaches beyond the immense degree of pain is their frequency, which occurs multiple times a day for weeks or months at a time. Lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours, these headaches are linked to the circadian rhythm, following the same pattern each day.

Cluster headaches typically begin in a person's 20s and are more common in men. Because the trigeminal nerve is affected, pain is localized behind one eye and may spread into the jaw. Before an attack, a person may have tearing in one eye and redness. The hypothalamus is thought to play a major role in cluster headaches, but few medications have any effect on the pain during an attack. Oxygen administered at the onset diminishes the duration significantly, and some patients find relief with nasal lidocaine. For some patients, surgery may be required to block the trigeminal nerve.


When someone thinks of a terrible headache, they typically think of a migraine. The word migraine is practically synonymous with blinding pain, and while cluster headaches rank higher on the pain index, that doesn't make living with migraines any easier. Genetics seem to have an impact on whether or not a person will suffer from migraines, and migraines are more common in women. Those suffering from migraines will typically experience one or more attacks a month with a duration of several hours to several days.

The cause of migraines is unknown, but many patients notice certain activities or stimuli trigger an attack like weather or lighting. During a migraine, blood vessels constrict, which triggers prostaglandins, stimulating the inflammatory response that signals pain. While caffeine withdrawal has also been linked as a trigger, consumption can have the opposite effect, and caffeine is often used in migraine medication to increase the healing properties.

For those suffering from migraines, the most common symptom is a throbbing pain, typically shifting from one side to the other or engulfing the entire head. Nausea, vomiting, dizziness and sensitivity to light and noise may also be present. Some patients may also have a temporary loss of vision, which frequently leads to emergency room visits the first time it happens. Some patients will experience what is known as an "aura" before a migraine, which may include vision loss or spotty vision. Migraines may be treated with over-the-counter medication, but if you suffer from migraines, you should speak to your physician about abortive medication or preventative measures.

Tension Headaches

Some headaches are a literal pain in the neck. As the most common type of headache, tension headaches are typically periodic, but some may experience chronic pain. The average duration is 30 minutes to a few days, but some sufferers may experience these stress-based headaches for longer. The most common symptom is a pain and stiffness around the base of the head and the neck, sometimes spreading into the shoulder and jaw. At their peak, tension headaches will often pierce through the top of the head.

While these headaches are painful, they do not carry with them the same debilitating symptoms as other headaches. Tension headaches are most frequently caused by anxiety, fatigue, problematic posture and overexertion in physical activities. Emotional stressors may also trigger an attack. Tension headaches are commonly treated with over-the-counter pain medication, but if they occur chronically, your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxants to help diminish the symptoms.

Sinus Headaches

Most commonly seen when ill, sinus headaches are often part of a package of symptoms including nasal congestion, fever and a runny nose. A fever typically occurs when there is a sinus infection, so treatment is focused around treating the infection instead of the symptoms. While some people do experience a headache with allergies, this is from pressure due to congestion rather than a true sinus headache and is typically treated using an antihistamine. For those who experience regular blockage, a humidifier can help open the nasal passages and eliminate the pressure that causes pain.

Regardless of where your headaches come from, arming yourself with information can be the surest way to stopping pain before it starts. If you do suffer from chronic headaches, visit your doctor with a list of symptoms and any potential triggers.