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?
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:
These headaches are not dangerous, but the pain can be debilitating and disruptive to your quality of life.
Common triggers of primary headaches are:
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:
Types of secondary headaches that can be indicative of a serious underlying condition include:
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.
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:
If these treatments don’t resolve your tension headache, contact your primary health care provider, who can help address the underlying triggers.
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:
Treatments for cluster headaches are for both relief and prevention. Generally, relief treatment options include:
Preventive treatment options are:
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:
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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:
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:
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:
Knowing your migraine category makes it easier to determine a suitable pain management plan.
Common triggers for migraines include:
Treatment plans for migraines are to either prevent the attack or relieve the symptoms. Some effective treatments include:
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:
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:
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.