1. Types of headaches
Many of us are familiar with some form of the throbbing, uncomfortable, and distracting pain of a headache. There are different types of headaches and the common types of headaches include:
- tension headache
- cluster headache
- migraine headache
- hemicrania continua
- ice pick headache
- thunderclap headache
- allergy or sinus headache (Note: This is not an official headache disorder. Rather, it’s a description of symptoms, which usually involve sinus pressure or pain.)
- hormone headache (also known as menstrual migraine)
- caffeine headache
- exertion headache
- hypertension headache
- rebound headache
- post-traumatic headache
Nearly everyone experiences a headache once in a while. The cause, duration, and intensity of this pain can vary according to the type of headache.
The types of headaches may be categorized as Primary- and Secondary headaches. Let us look into more detail on each of the types.
2. The most common primary headaches
Primary headaches occur when the pain in your head is the condition. In other words, your headache isn’t being triggered by something that your body is dealing with, like illness or allergies.
These headaches can be episodic or chronic:
- Episodic headaches may occur every so often 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 in a month. In these cases, a pain management plan is necessary.
If you have a tension headache, you may feel a dull, aching sensation all over your head and it isn’t throbbing. Tenderness or sensitivity around your neck, forehead, scalp, or shoulder muscles also might occur. Anyone can get a tension headache and stress is often the trigger.
Cluster headaches are characterized by 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 individual headache can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. During a cluster, most people experience one to four headaches a 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.
Migraine pain is an intense pulsing from deep within your head. This pain can last for days. Migraine headaches significantly limit your ability to carry out your daily routine. The pain is throbbing and usually one-sided. People with migraine headaches are often sensitive to light and sound. Nausea and vomiting also usually occur.
Some migraine headaches are preceded by visual disturbances. About one-third of people will experience these symptoms before the headache starts. Known as a migraine aura, it may cause you to see:
- flashing lights
- shimmering lights
- zigzag lines
- blind spots
Auras can also include tingling on one side of your face or in one arm and trouble speaking. Common migraine triggers include environmental factors, such as:
- sleep disruption
- skipped meals
- some foods
- hormone fluctuations
- exposure to chemicals
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 one percent of headaches and it’s twice as common in women.
This type of headache may also be accompanied by:
- tearing or eye redness
- nasal congestion or runny nose
- eyelid drooping
- forehead sweating
- 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 per day and come on without warning. Ice pick headaches could feel like a single stab or multiple stabs in succession. Ice pick headaches usually move around to different parts of your head. If you’re experiencing ice pick headaches that always occur in the same spot, it might be a symptom of an underlying condition.
Thunderclap headache is an extremely 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. The first time you experience a thunderclap headache, seek immediate medical attention.
3. Secondary 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 in the front of your head. People who suffer from chronic seasonal allergies or sinusitis are susceptible to these kinds of headaches.
Women commonly 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 specifically with the menstrual cycle are also known as menstrual migraine. These can occur right before, during, or right after your period, as well as during ovulation.
Caffeine affects blood flow to your brain. Having 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 from it can trigger a headache.
Exertion headaches happen quickly after periods of intense physical activity. Weightlifting, running, and intense workouts are all common triggers for an exertion headache. It’s thought that these activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, which can lead 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.
High blood pressure can cause a headache. This kind of headache signals an emergency. It occurs when your blood pressure becomes dangerously high. A hypertension headache will usually occur on both sides of your head and is typically worse with any activity. It often has a pulsating quality.
Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headaches, can feel like a dull, tension-type headache, or they may feel more intensely painful, like a migraine headache. 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. Rebound headaches are likelier to occur anytime OTC medications are used more than 15 days out of a month.
Post-traumatic headaches can develop after any type of head injury. These headaches feel like migraine or tension headaches. They usually last up to 6 to 12 months after your injury occurs and they can become chronic.
4. When do I need to see a doctor about my headaches?
In most cases, episodic headaches will go away within 48 hours. If you have a headache that lasts more than 2 days or that increases in intensity, we recommend that you consult with your doctor. If you’re getting headaches more than 15 days out of the month over a period of 3 months, you might have a chronic headache condition. Even if you’re able to manage the pain with OTC medications, see a doctor for a medical diagnosis.
Headaches can be a symptom of more serious health conditions, and some do require treatment beyond OTC medications and home remedies. And in the case of a Covid infection, the severe headaches will be accompanied with other symptoms and require immediate PCR testing.
5. Can I prevent headaches?
Many headaches can be managed with preventive measures, but the methods will differ by headache type. Some headache types might be prevented with medication, while others might be caused by the same medication. Discuss preventive treatments with a doctor to find a plan that fits your needs. Headache prevention could mean reduced headache frequency or intensity, or prevention of headaches altogether.
In general, many headaches can be prevented or improved with lifestyle changes including:
- getting enough sleep on a regular schedule
- getting enough to eat, and eating balanced meals
- staying hydrated
- getting adequate and regular exercise
- managing your stress levels through exercise and meditation
Disclaimer: This content including advice provides generic information only. It is in no way a substitute for a qualified medical opinion. Always consult a specialist or your own doctor for more information on the topic.