The 14 Different Kinds of Headaches You Can Get

Here's how to identify which type of headache you have.

There's no getting around it: Headaches are the worst—but the only real way to get rid of the pain is knowing which type of headache you're dealing with. The key? Knowing exactly how to describe your pain and symptoms (like having a headache in the back of your head versus the right or left side)—it's the best way for healthcare providers to determine whether you have something temporary like a sinus headache, or something a bit more chronic, like migraines.

But as far as what causes headaches goes, no one really knows: "We know a lot more than we did 20 years ago about what causes headaches," said Charles Flippen, MD, associate professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "We know what areas of the brain are generating pain, but we don't have the whole picture."

That said, your headache symptoms can help you (and your healthcare provider) determine which type of headache you're experiencing. Here are 14 different types of headaches, what can cause each one, and, most importantly, how to get rid of them ASAP.

1. Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, according to Medline Plus, a resource of the National Library of Medicine. Tight muscles in your shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw are the main culprit behind these headaches—which are often related to stress, depression, or anxiety. Lifestyle habits such as working too much, not getting enough sleep, not eating well, or using alcohol can contribute to tension headaches.

According to the National Headache Foundation (NHF), tension headaches cause dull, non-throbbing constant pain, often experienced on both sides of the head. They're not as severe as migraines and aren't usually accompanied by nausea and vomiting, which means they rarely stop someone from continuing their regular activities.

The NHF recommends the following treatment options:

  • Rest
  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen sodium
  • Combinations of analgesics with caffeine
  • Ice packs
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Antidepressants, if appropriate
  • Biofeedback
  • Psychotherapy
  • Temporary use of stronger prescription analgesics, if necessary

2. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are headaches that occur in groups or cycles, and each attack lasts about one to three hours on average. According to the NHF, cluster headaches recur regularly, even multiple times daily, over a certain period of time and then may be followed by a headache-free period of months or even years.

These headaches appear suddenly and are characterized by severe, debilitating pain on either the right or the left side of the head, and are often accompanied by a watery eye, nasal congestion, or a runny nose on the same side of the face. During an attack, a person is often restless and unable to get comfortable and not likely to lay down the way someone with a migraine usually does.

Cluster headaches predominantly affect cisgender men between the ages of 20 and 50, according to the NHF, with 80% of cluster patients identifying as cisgender males.

The cause of cluster headaches is unknown. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, these headaches seem to be related to the sudden release of histamine or serotonin in the body. Triggers can include alcohol, cigarettes, high altitudes, and certain foods.

Treatment for cluster headaches, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, is a two-pronged approach: aborting an attack with oxygen therapy or a nasal spray and preventing future attacks with medications.

3. Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches cause gnawing pain over the nasal area, often increasing in severity throughout the day, according to the NHF. Sinus headache pain is caused by infection, usually with fever, producing blockage of sinus ducts and preventing normal drainage.

These types of headaches are typically the most over-diagnosed, according to Peter Goadsby, MD, director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Migraines, for example, can often be mistaken for sinus headaches, since symptoms like sinus pressure, nasal congestion, and watery eyes can happen in both types. But sinus headaches are actually rare.

A true sinus headache is related to an infection and comes with nasal discharge that is green or tinged with red, said Dr. Goadsby. Sinus infections often resolve with time or antibiotics, if necessary, and shouldn't cause nausea or light sensitivity, which are migraine symptoms. Headaches due to sinus infections can also be treated with antihistamines or decongestants.

4. Rebound Headaches

Overuse of painkillers for headaches—like aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), or prescription drugs—can, ironically, lead to rebound headaches. "Most of the patients we see in a headache center with daily headaches have medication-overuse—or rebound—headaches," said Stewart Tepper, MD, director of research at the Center for Headache and Pain at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute.

"They are on a merry-go-round and they can't get off," said Dr. Tepper. "They keep taking more medicine, they keep having more headaches, and so the patient becomes more and more desperate. That's when they end up coming to headache specialists to kind of reset the whole system."

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), rebound headaches often begin early in the morning, with the location and severity changing from day to day. People who have rebound headaches also may have nausea, anxiety, irritability, depression, or problems sleeping.

One theory is that too much medication can cause the brain to shift into an excited state, triggering more headaches. Another is that headaches are a symptom of withdrawal as the level of medicine drops in the bloodstream, according to the National Library of Medicine.

So how much medication is too much, and too often? The AAFP recommends taking prescription and over-the-counter medicines no more than two days per week. Sedatives, tranquilizers, and ergotamine medicines also can cause rebound headaches. You should speak with your healthcare provider to find out if you should stop taking these medicines, or take less of them.

5. Migraine Headaches

According to Medline Plus, about 12% of Americans get migraines. These severe headaches are three times as common in women as men, though they can affect anyone. As per Medline, the cause isn't clear, but genes appear to play a role, and brain cell activity may affect blood vessel and nerve cell function.

Migraine headaches are defined by certain criteria, according to the American Headache Society:

  • At least five previous episodes of the same type of headaches
  • Headaches that last between four hours and 72 hours
  • Having at least two out of four of these features: one-sided pain, throbbing pain, moderate-to-severe pain, and pain that interferes with, is worsened by, or prohibits routine activity
  • Having at least one associated feature: nausea and/or vomiting, or, if those are not present, then sensitivity to light and sound

An oncoming migraine attack may, for some, be foreshadowed by an aura, which can include visual distortions (like wavy lines or blind spots) or numbness of a hand.

One common migraine trigger is a change in your body, including hormones, stress, and sleeping or eating patterns. "If you know skipping meals is a trigger, don't skip meals while menstruating and having a late night," said Dr. Goadsby.

There is no cure for migraines. But relieving symptoms and preventing additional attacks is key to managing them, according to Medline.

Treatment can include:

  • Triptans (such as Imitrex or Zomig)
  • Ergotamine drugs, and pain relievers
  • You can try resting with your eyes closed in a quiet, darkened room, drinking fluids, and placing a cool cloth or ice pack on your forehead to relieve symptoms

6. Dental Headaches

There are dental-related conditions that can trigger headaches or face pain. Bruxism, according to NHF, is a condition in which one grinds, clenches, or gnashes the teeth, either by day or night, often without being aware of what they are doing. Bruxism causes muscular over-activity and can lead to muscle spasms and headaches.

Another condition is temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), which affects the joints in your face, located just in front of your ear, which connects the jaw to the skull, per the NHF. The pain may radiate to the back or side of the head or down into the neck. The pressure around the head can be either tension-type or migraine-like.

Diagnosis of TMJ requires the presence of symptoms such as a painful clicking or popping of the joint, abnormal motion of the joint, and disorders of the bite.

Your dentist can help diagnose these types of headaches. Treatment may include rest, heat, physical therapy, stress reduction, bite guards, or, in some cases, surgery.

7. Caffeine Headaches

You love your coffee, but it can be a cruel companion. For example, if you have two cups of coffee every day at 9 a.m., and then miss those cups when you oversleep on Saturday—boom—you can end up with a caffeine withdrawal headache.

According to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF), people who consume large quantities of caffeine regularly may be at risk for withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit "cold turkey."

Caffeine withdrawal headaches are characterized by a throbbing headache, according to the NHF. This is caused by rebound dilation of the blood vessels, occurring multiple days after drinking large quantities of caffeine.

Your only real options? "You can take caffeine when you normally do and feed the addiction, or quit altogether" and suffer temporarily, said Dr. Goadsby.

8. Orgasm Headaches

Orgasm-induced headaches are caused by having an orgasm. Luckily, they're relatively rare and are more common in younger people, particularly men, said Dr. Flippen. They usually start shortly after intercourse begins and end in a "thunderclap" headache at climax, a severe headache that comes on full force in less than a minute, lasting at least five minutes, and often appearing without any trigger, according to the AMF.

A dull headache can often linger for hours or a day. Dr. Flippen said that there is often no known cause for these headaches, and they usually go away on their own. Dr. Flippen recommended seeing a healthcare provider as, in rare cases, they can be a sign of something more serious. A dose of pain reliever before sex may help ease the pain.

9. Early-morning Headaches

If you're waking up in pain, there are several possible culprits. Migraines are more likely to happen in the morning, or medication may be waning in your body as you sleep, which causes a rebound headache, said Dr. Goadsby. People with sleep apnea may also be more prone to headaches early in the day, according to a 2020 study in Brain Sciences. This holds true for those with dental headaches, according to a 2020 study in the IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences.

In the worst-case scenario, waking up consistently with a headache could be a symptom of a brain tumor, said Dr. Goadsby.

10. Ice Cream Headache

These headaches are typically known as brain freezes—a shooting head pain that can occur while enjoying an icy cold drink or treat on a hot day. And while almost everyone gets one in their lifetime, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, people with migraines have a higher likelihood of experiencing brain freeze.

Turns out, ice cream headaches have an impressive medical name—sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia—but they're not all that serious. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a likely theory for why this happens is that, when you eat or drink a large quantity of very cold food or liquid, you drop the temperature of the palate (the roof of your mouth) pretty substantially. The blood vessels automatically constrict as a survival reflex to maintain your body's core temperature. Then the blood vessels open up quickly which sends a pain signal to the brain through a nerve called the trigeminal nerve.

The cure? Take a momentary break from the frosty goodness until the pain subsides, or sip warm water to help quell the cold and constrict the brain artery.

11. Chronic Daily Headaches

If you have a headache at least 15 days per month for more than three months you're considered to have chronic daily headaches, said Dr. Goadsby. These could be caused by overuse of pain medications (i.e., rebound headaches), head injury, or in rare cases, meningitis or tumors. But if there is no obvious cause, it could be because your body's pain signals are heightened or not working properly, said Dr. Goadsby.

According to the NHF, chronic daily headaches may evolve from migraine or episodic tension-type headaches. They can also be associated with medication overuse.

Treatment for this type of headache will depend on the diagnosis as it is important to limit the use of pain medications.

12. Menstrual Headaches

As if PMS wasn't bad enough, the sudden drop in estrogen right before your period can sometimes trigger migraines, said Dr. Flippen, which usually occur between three days before and two days after your period has started.

According to the NHF, menstrual migraines affect 60% of women who experience migraine attacks. Because oral contraceptives influence estrogen levels, people on birth control pills may experience more frequent menstrual migraine attacks.

Menstrual migraines can be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), dihydroergotamine (DHE), triptans, and a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (AAC).

Other people, however, may have PMS-related headaches that aren't migraines. As per the NHF, PMS headaches occur before your period.

The symptoms include:

  • Headache pain accompanied by fatigue
  • Acne
  • Joint pain
  • Decreased urination
  • Constipation
  • Lack of coordination.
  • You may also experience an increase in appetite and a craving for chocolate, salt, or alcohol

Dr. Flippen recommended over-the-counter headache remedies; magnesium supplements may also help PMS-related head pain.

13. Weekend Headaches

Some people may experience headaches that mainly show up on the weekend. These are thought to be caused by oversleeping on weekend mornings or going to bed later at night; being stressed during the week may also lead to a weekend headache.

According to the NHF, one of the factors contributing to "weekend" or "holiday" headaches may be caffeine withdrawal. This withdrawal or rebound headache can occur on weekends or holidays if similar amounts of caffeine are not consumed as are consumed during the week.

Over-the-counter pain medications can be helpful, as can sticking to your regular sleep-wake schedule.

14. Emergency Headaches

Most headaches aren't an emergency, but there are a few symptoms that warrant rapid attention, said Dr. Flippen. One is a sudden onset headache that is quickly "explosive," which could be indicative of a brain aneurysm. Another is when a headache comes with a fever or extreme rise in blood pressure, or if it occurs after a blow to the head or exertion.

Other problematic symptoms include vision or speech change, neck pain, dizziness, loss of sensation, or muscle weakness on one side of the body. Call 911 if you have these worrisome symptoms in addition to a headache.

Summary

Headaches can have numerous different causes and symptoms can vary widely. You may get a headache occasionally—say, before your period or due to a sinus infection—or you may be prone to a chronic form of headaches, such as cluster headaches or migraines. Being able to describe your headache symptoms and triggers in detail will help your healthcare provider come up with a diagnosis as well as the right treatment.

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