Practically everyone will experience a headache at some point in their lives—they are just a fact of life. There are many different types of headaches, and their causes and symptoms can vary. Although most headaches can be treated with simple painkillers and are rarely a major concern, some could be a sign of more serious medical conditions.
It’s important to be able to recognize which kind of headache you’re experiencing. Once you know the type of headache you have, you and your doctor can figure out the best way to treat it and prevent it from getting worse. Here are 8 common types of headaches, along with their own characteristics and possible treatments:
1. Just One Side of Your Head: Migraine
The migraine headache is characterized by an intense throbbing or pulsating pain that is located only on one side of the head. The “classic” migraine is preceded by an “aura,” which typically consists of strange visual disturbances including: zigzagging lines, flashing lights, and occasionally, temporary vision loss. The person may experience a heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Nausea and vomiting are also common. With or without an aura, this pain is typically severe and can impair your normal functioning. Your best option to ease the attack is to stop what you’re doing and rest in a dark, quiet place. Placing an ice pack or a cold cloth on the forehead will also help. For more difficult-to-treat migraines that are frequent enough to affect your life, you should seek help from a doctor.
2. Pressure Around Your Head: Tension Headache
Tension headaches present as a constant, banding pressure or aching pain that wraps around your head. It usually occurs when neck, shoulder, and scalp muscles become tense. Some people experience tension headaches from time to time; others get them more often. While it is rare that a tension headache will seriously disrupt normal activities, it can certainly make life miserable. While painkillers such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin definitely work, you may also want to check into everyday habits, because this muscle tension may be amplified by not getting enough sleep, an unbalanced diet, or too much mental stress.
3. Pain In your Face: Sinus Headache
If you feel a constant ache around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead, you can assume it’s a sinus headache. These are usually accompanied by a thick, green or yellow nasal discharge. Sinus headaches are actually pretty rare. If there are no nasal symptoms, it is more likely to be a migraine—which can also cause facial pain. Another indicator is fever, which is a primary symptom of a sinus infection, but it would be very unusual for a migraine to present a fever. If you’ve been diagnosed with a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or suggest nasal decongestant sprays to ease the symptoms and treat the problem.
4. Sudden Pain From Out of Nowhere: Thunderclap Headache
This rare type of severe headache comes on suddenly. It feels like a lightning strike inside your head, causing intense pain and often nausea and vomiting. You may feel pain anywhere on your head or neck. You may even feel it in your back. Thunderclap headaches can last about 5 minutes, and you may not know why they’re happening. If you experience one, you should take it seriously and get emergency medical attention as soon as possible. It’s often the only warning you will get before encountering a life-threatening attack such as a brain hemorrhage.
5. Behind the Eye: Cluster Headache
If it feels like a intense burning or piercing behind one of your eyes, it may be a cluster headache. According to World Health Organization (WHO), cluster headaches are 6 times more likely to develop in men than in women. They are usually accompanied by symptoms like tearing in the eyes, runny nose, or swollen eyelid on the affected side. You may also feel agitated and want to get up and pace.
Cluster headaches occur when a specific nerve pathway in the base of the brain is activated. That signal seems to come from a deeper part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates your sleep and wake cycles. This might explain why the attacks happen so regularly—generally at the same time each day—that they are also known as “alarm clock headaches.”
6. Anywhere Around the Head: Exertional Headache
Exertion headaches happen during or after intense physical activities such as weight lifting or running. It’s thought that these activities cause increased blood flow to your skull, which can lead to a throbbing headache anywhere around your head. The headache itself is not harmful and usually resolves on its own within a few minutes or several hours. But if you have it, make sure to see your doctor for a checkup. In some cases, it may be a sign of a serious underlying conditions like a hemorrhage.
7. Pain at the Back of Head: Arthritis Headaches
If your headache is related to a problem in your neck, chances are you have arthritis headaches. Unlike a common headache, a neck arthritis headache typically begins with pain in the neck. From there, the pain will move up the back of your head until it reaches the top. This is usually caused by inflammation of the blood vessels of the head or bony changes in the structures of the neck. If the jaw is involved, the symptoms are similar to those of temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ). You will have to make lifestyle changes to reduce nerve pressure on the spine caused by arthritis.
8. Waking You Up: Hypnic Headache
What’s most unique about a hypnic headache is that it only develops during sleep and wakes the sufferer, which is why it’s also known as an “alarm clock” headache.
A hypnic headache consists of a moderate-to-severe throbbing pain usually felt on both sides of the head. It usually begins in people after age 50 years but may occur in younger people as well. The exact cause or trigger of hypnic headaches isn’t known, but doses of caffeine—taken as a tablet or beverage—before bedtime are the most commonly used treatment. For most patients, paradoxically, caffeine does not prevent them from sleeping adequately.