Different Headache Types: Location, Symptoms, and How to Treat Them

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

When you feel a throbbing, persistent, dull, or sharp pain in your head or face, you’re most likely experiencing a headache. Everyone can tell when they feel discomfort in their head, yet no two headaches are precisely the same. Different treatments may be necessary to relieve pain, even if their characteristics are similar.

According to a headache disorders report by the World Health Organization (WHO), people underestimate, underrecognize, and undertreat headaches globally. When you can identify the type of headache pain, managing and treating it will be much easier. So how many types of headaches are there?

What are the different headache types?

There are over 150 types of headaches based on the classification by the International Headache Society. Headaches have two broad categories: primary and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches: These happen as a result of overactive or dysfunctional pain-sensitive features in your head. Primary headaches are not symptoms of any underlying health issues. In some people, primary headaches could be genetic (i.e., some people have certain genes that make them prone to primary headaches).

The types of primary headaches include:

  • Migraines
  • Tension headaches
  • Cluster headaches
  • Nicotine headaches
  • Food-triggered headaches
  • Exertion headaches
  • Hunger headaches

These headaches are not dangerous, but the pain can be debilitating and disruptive to your quality of life.

A man with a tension headache holding a glass of water

Common triggers of primary headaches are:

  • Skipping meals
  • Dehydration
  • Vigorous coughing, laughing, or sneezing
  • Nitrate-containing food
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Nicotine intake
  • Bad posture
  • Excessive physical activity
  • Poor sleep patterns

Secondary headaches: These are characterized as a sign or symptom of an underlying medical condition. Generally, once you treat the issue, the headache goes away. While some secondary headaches have underlying problems that are easy to fix, some may indicate potentially life-threatening conditions, like seizures, brain bleeds, head injury, sudden blood pressure spikes, etc.

Types of secondary headaches that are less dangerous are:

  • Medication overuse headaches
  • Sinus headaches

Types of secondary headaches that can be indicative of a serious underlying condition include:

  • Spinal headaches
  • Thunderclap headaches

Headaches may also be classified as episodic or chronic. Episodic headaches are inconsistent and occur occasionally (e.g., three times a week or less). On the other hand, chronic headaches occur more than 15 days a month and require a plan for pain management.

Most common headache types by location: Symptoms and ways to manage them

Headaches usually originate from inflammation in the pain-sensitive features of the head and neck. These include the nerves, muscles, and blood vessels found in this region of the body. A headache type chart provides a visual representation of common headache types by location. Once the location is determined, a suitable treatment plan is crucial. Here are different headache types, their location, symptoms, and pain management options.

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Tension headache

Tension headaches happen around the forehead, temples, and back of the head. They are often referred to as hatband headaches because it can feel like they squeeze the head like a tight hat. They are one of the most common headache types. They tend to set in as pressure on the head and last from a few hours to days.

A tension headache can happen when you feel stressed.

Pain management options for tension headaches include:

  • Anti-inflammatory pain relievers
  • Physical therapy
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Antidepressants

If these treatments don’t resolve your tension headache, contact your primary health care provider, who can help address the underlying triggers.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches usually occur behind or around the eye. This is contrary to the belief that cluster headaches combine many types of headaches, as the name suggests. There’s no clear cause for cluster headaches. While studies have shown they occur more in men, there is limited research about them because they are rare, and only 0.1 percent of the population experience them.

Cluster headaches can last between 20 minutes and two hours, making them brief, especially compared to other headache types.

However, they tend to occur frequently after onset and then disappear for a few weeks or months. During these months, patients with cluster headaches appear symptom-free.

Some telling symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • Severe one-sided burning sensation
  • Nasal congestion
  • Tears from the eyes
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Enlarged pupil
  • Sweating and flushing

Treatments for cluster headaches are for both relief and prevention. Generally, relief treatment options include:

  • Sumatriptan
  • Lidocaine injections
  • Oxygen therapy

Preventive treatment options are:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Topiramate
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Melatonin

Sinus headache

Sinus headaches are located inside the forehead, cheekbones, and nasal cavity. The pain is strongly focused in the sinus area. People who experience serious seasonal allergies tend to be prone to this kind of headache. According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines have commonly been misdiagnosed as sinus headaches. They make up about 90 percent of so-called sinus headaches. A sinus headache, along with a runny nose with green nasal discharge, is usually a symptom of a sinus infection.

Treatment options for sinus headaches aim to thin out the mucus build-up that causes pressure. They include:

  • Steroidal nasal sprays
  • Antihistamines
  • Nasal decongestants like phenylephrine
  • Antibiotics for sinus infection

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Migraine

Migraines are typically felt on one side of the head. It may be a throbbing pain that lasts from two hours to three days. Migraines can be frustrating and can fully interrupt people’s days. They can be very painful and part of a mixed headache pattern (e.g., migraine and tension headaches). Symptoms include:

  • Intense pulsing or throbbing pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Sound sensitivity
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Note: Some stroke symptoms are similar to migraine symptoms. If you have a history of migraines, but experience new symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

Migraines have several categories, so here is a summary:

  • Classic migraines or migraines with aura: Migraines that are preceded by an aura (a type of visual disturbance), which is a warning symptom
  • Common migraine or migraine without aura: Migraines that start with pain and no prior warning
  • Less common forms: These include hemiplegic migraines, complicated migraines, ocular migraines, basilar migraines, and acephalgic migraines.
A woman taking a pain relief medication to manage her headache

Auras are warning signals that let a person know they are about to have a migraine. As explained earlier, they don’t happen in all migraine cases. For those who have classic migraines, the aura may be quite different from person to person. Auras are commonly characterized by the following:

  • Stars
  • Flashing lights
  • Shimmering lights
  • Zigzag lines
  • Blind spots
  • Trouble speaking
  • Face or arm tingling

Knowing your migraine category makes it easier to determine a suitable pain management plan.

Common triggers for migraines include:

  • Missing meals
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Hormone fluctuations

Treatment plans for migraines are to either prevent the attack or relieve the symptoms. Some effective treatments include:

  • A hot or cold compress on the head
  • Head massages
  • Resting in a quiet, dark room
  • Neuromodulation therapy
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

When to see a doctor about your headache

While it’s OK to check in with your primary health care practitioner whenever you have a headache, there are times you may need to seek immediate medical attention. See a doctor immediately if you have been experiencing headaches coupled with any of the following symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Red and painful eyes
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Facial drooping
  • Numbness or paralysis of any body part
  • Loss of vision
  • Confusion
  • Fever or chills
  • Night sweats

Note: You should seek out immediate medical care, especially if it feels like the worst headache you have ever had.

There are other scenarios when headaches should prompt you to see a doctor, for example, when you:

  • Experience one or more headaches each week
  • Start having headaches after a blow to your head
  • Have headaches that keep getting progressively worse
  • Experience recurring headaches, especially for children
  • Need to take painkillers daily for your headaches
  • Notice a change in your usual headache symptoms
  • Get headaches following coughing or any strenuous action
  • Experience headaches after a major surgical procedure

Bottom line

According to the WHO, almost 50 percent of the adult population have a headache at least once per year. Getting a cluster, migraine, or sinus headache is a common problem, and people tend to manage them with over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or aspirin. However, different headache types can cause pain varying in severity, duration, and frequency.

If you believe your headaches are interrupting your daily activities or affecting your mood, it’s essential to consult your health care provider. In many cases, keeping a log of how often your headaches occur, as well as any other symptoms, can come in handy. Your health care provider should be able to help you pinpoint any triggers and help manage the headaches.

November 14, 2022