A headache is a headache — or is it? There are actually five main types of headaches, each with their own unique symptoms and characteristics. Headaches can be a symptom of a more serious brain problem or an illness, so it’s important to know what type of a headache you have. Here are the five most common headache types and how to recognize them.
Migraines cause a throbbing pain that’s usually one-sided. These common and sometimes incapacitating headaches can be associated with vomiting, nausea, and light sensitivity. Some people have neurological symptoms with migraine headaches. These symptoms may include numbness, tingling, seeing colors and flashes of light, or weakness on one side of the body. In some cases, a migraine can even mimic a stroke.
Migraines last several hours to several days at a time and are more common in women. This headache type may also run in families.
This garden-variety headache is another common cause of head pain. Tension headaches are often triggered by stress because it causes muscles in the neck and back of the head to tighten up.
Tension headaches cause a dull ache that makes your head feel like its being squeezed by a vice. This pesky form of a headache involves both sides of the head and lasts anywhere from an hour to days. Tension headaches can be brought on by eye strain from too much computer work, stress, and poor posture. Some people have them quite frequently, sometimes daily.
Cluster headaches usually present with a sharp, burning pain on one side of the head and, sometimes, one-sided eye pain. True cluster headaches are almost always one-sided. The biochemical changes that occur with a cluster headache are linked with symptoms such as facial flushing, tearing, facial sweating and nasal discharge. Fortunately, these headaches usually only last minutes to hours, unlike migraines that can last for days. This type of a headache is more common in men.
Sinus headaches cause a headache and facial pressure, which is usually constant. A sinus headache can mimic a tension headache but it’s usually distinguishable by the presence of nasal discharge, stuffiness, and post-nasal drainage. Sinus headaches occur when the sinuses, located behind the face, become inflamed due to infection or allergy.
Rebound headaches are a type of a headache caused by using too much pain medication to treat headaches. This type of a headache is more common than people think, thanks to the tendency of people to take a pill at the first sign of a headache.
Rebound headaches usually cause a constant, dull ache that persists throughout the day and makes it difficult to sleep due to anxiety and restlessness. Other symptoms associated with rebound headaches are memory problems, difficulty concentrating and irritability. People who use headache medications more than twice a week are a risk for rebound headaches.
The Bottom Line?
Before treating a headache, make sure you know what type you have. Taking medications if you have a rebound headache will only make the problem worse. See your doctor for a proper diagnosis before self-medicating. Headaches can sometimes be signs of more serious health problems, including urgent ones that require immediate attention. Play it safe and see your doctor right away if you have a new-onset headache.
Health Magazine. May 2009. pages 152-153.
Medscape.com. “Cluster Headache”
Medscape Reference. “Tension Headache”
Mayo Clinic. “Rebound Headaches”