Different types of headaches and how to identify them

While it is true that headaches are painful and unpleasant, the fact is that they are a common problem that people face all around the world. According to World health Organisation, about half the population of the entire world suffer from some form of headache at least once a year. Even though headaches can be painful and debilitating, more often than not they can be treated with simple pain killers and ample rest. However if the headaches are too frequent of persistent, then they might be indicative of some underlying condition. Discussed in this article are some of the more common types of headaches that people have reported experiencing.

Types of headaches

Headaches are broadly divided into two categories- primary and secondary.

Primary headache– Primary headaches are basically where the headache itself is the main problem. It is not a symptom for an underlying disease but is the disease in itself which needs treatment. Even though these can be very painful and disabling at times, they are not very dangerous. Since the brain cannot feel pain the pain that is experienced is the result of inflammation in pain sensitive areas of the body near the neck and head including nerves, blood vessels, and muscles.

Among the several categories of primary headache, some of the most common are:

  • Migraine headache
  • Tension headache
  • Hypnic headache
  • Cluster headache

Secondary headache– Secondary headaches are caused by some underlying issues that trigger the pain sensitive areas in the head and neck. Though secondary headaches are rare, there are much more dangerous than primary headaches as they can be (but are not necessarily)  indicative of some serious issues.

  • The conditions that cause might cause secondary headaches can include:
  • Brain tumours
  • Aneurysm
  • Meningitis
  • Neck or brain injury
  • Sinusitis, etc.

Described below are different types of headaches

Migraine headache: Migraine headaches usually begin with an intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head, which may spread. They also often cause nausea and vomiting. A migraine can last a few hours to many days and can make people sensitive to lights, smells, and sounds. Doctors aren’t sure what causes migraine headaches. Most experts believe that they begin in the nervous system. Because migraines often run in families, it seems likely that genes play a role, too. For people who have migraines, many things can bring on an attack.

Common triggers of migraine include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Certain foods or smells
  • Dry winds
  • Changes in altitude or seasons
  • Changes in hormones such as with menstruation
  • Birth control pills
  • Missing a meal
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Stress or tension, etc.

Tension headache: Almost everyone gets these from time to time. They bring a dull, constant, non-throbbing pain that can make you feel as if your head is wrapped in a tight band. You’ll usually feel pain on both sides of your head or neck, not just on one side. Neck muscles may seem knotted, and parts of your head and neck may be sensitive to touch. These headaches aren’t typically made worse by physical activity, light, smells, or sounds. And they usually don’t come with nausea and vomiting.

Tension-type headaches can be short-lived and happen rarely, or they can last a while and come back often. They’re “episodic” if you get them fewer than 15 days a month. They’re “chronic” if you get them more often than that.

Triggers for tension headache can include:

  • Stress
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Neck pain
  • Hunger
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Depression
  • Poor posture
  • Jaw or dental problems

Hypnic headache: A hypnic headache is one of the rare types of headaches that usually begins when people are in their 50s, but it can start sooner. People also refer to them as “alarm clock” headaches, and they wake individuals during the night.

A hypnic headache consists of mild-to-moderate throbbing pain, usually in both sides of the head. It can last for up to 3 hours, while other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

People can experience several attacks each week. The cause of hypnic headaches is not clear, and there are no known triggers.

Although hypnic headaches are harmless, an older adult who experiences any unusual headaches for the first time should seek medical advice. A doctor may wish to rule out migraine and cluster headaches.

Cluster headache: These got their name because they tend to come in bunches over weeks. An average cluster can go on for 6 to 12 weeks. Typically, they start hours after you fall asleep. Sometimes, a mild ache will warn you that a cluster headache is coming.

Typically the pain is only on one side of the head. It’s often near or around the eye. It is severe and piercing, and it peaks within minutes. The eye on the affected side becomes red and watery and often nasal congestion with a runny nose occurs on that side.

This headache lasts 15 minutes to 3 hours and then fades or disappears, only to come back a day or so later. Some people can have eight or more attacks in a day.

Cluster headaches can strike every day for weeks or months and then stay away for a long time. They’re more common in men and tend to start between ages 25 and 50. Heavy smokers get them more often than non-smokers.

Triggers for cluster headache can include:

  • Stress
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Eating certain foods
  • Smoking

Some other types of headaches include

  • hemicrania continua
  • ice pick headache
  • thunderclap headache
  • allergy or sinus headache
  • hormone headache (also known as menstrual migraine)
  • caffeine headache
  • medication-overuse headache
  • exertion headache
  • hypertension headache
  • rebound headache
  • post-traumatic headache
  • spinal headache


NOTE: The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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