Different Types of Headaches and What They Mean

Woman with headache

You know when you have one, even if the pain varies from piercing or throbbing to just a dull ache. Most are brief, and easily treated with over-the-counter pain relief medication. But certain types of headaches may be a sign of a more serious health problem or require specialized care. Though the International Classification of Headache Disorders lists over 150 different types of headaches, here’s a closer look at several common types.

Migraine

According to experts at Medical News Today, “A migraine is an extremely painful primary headache disorder,” which “usually produce[s] symptoms that are more intense and debilitating than headaches.” 

Typically, a migraine progresses through four stages, each defined by its own symptoms. These include sensitivity to light, nausea, drilling or throbbing pain, and insomnia. Note that not all people who experience migraines go through all four stages, and symptoms within each stage may vary.

A 2018 study found that more than 15% of American adults experienced a migraine episode or a severe headache within three months prior to being surveyed — more of them women than men.

If you suspect you may be experiencing either chronic or episodic migraines, record your symptoms over time, and go over them with your doctor to determine the best treatment. “Keeping a simple migraine diary can be very helpful,” encourages The Migraine Trust. “This might include details of treatment you have tried in the past which has not helped the attacks.”

Thunderclap Headache

A thunderclap headache may be a sign of a condition that can be life threatening,” the experts at Healthline warn. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience a sudden, overwhelmingly severe headache. According to Cleveland Clinic, you may be suffering these conditions, among others:

  • “Torn or ruptured blood vessels in the brain
  • Stroke (blocked or bleeding blood vessel)
  • Brain aneurysm (bulging or bleeding blood vessel)
  • Head injury that causes a brain bleed”

The severity of these intensely painful, acute headaches cannot be underestimated, and swift action must be taken at once. 

Tension Headache

A tension headache is the most common type of headache,” the Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia explains. “It is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck, and is often associated with muscle tightness in these areas.” Stress, and holding your head in one position for a long period of time are two factors that may cause them. 

To help calm the pain, Harvard Health advises you to get enough sleep, eat regular meals, and avoid stressors. Regular relaxation techniques (such as regulated breathing or guided imagery exercises to release tension and stress) may also be useful. Consult with your doctor about whether biofeedback or other medical approaches may also work for you. 

Cluster Headache

Though medical experts are unsure what causes this kind of headache, it may be related to a sudden release of histamine or serotonin in the body. 

The pain these headaches cause is usually the same each time. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the common symptoms are:

  • “Sudden onset of pain, generally around or behind the eye
  • Pain builds to a peak in about 10 to 15 minutes
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Red or watering eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sweating on the forehead
  • Eyelid drooping or swelling”

These headaches come in groups (or “clusters”), over several days or even multiple times a day. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing cluster headaches, to help determine potential causes and treatments. 

Ice Pick Headache

Like other headaches, the cause of these sharp, brief stabs of pain — usually in small areas of your head — remains a mystery. But as MigraineAgain cautions, “If ice pick headaches slowly increase in frequency, always occur in the same place in the head, are always one-sided, and/or are triggered by head movements or bearing down, this could be a sign that there is a potential secondary cause for the headache (something else going on like injury to a brain structure).” 

As with migraine, cluster, and tension headaches, keep a record of your symptoms, along with the duration of the pain, and what you were doing or consuming prior to the occurrence. This can help your doctor determine the cause and best form of relief. 

At YourTown Health, we have a wide-range of services to help treat headaches, and whatever may lie behind them. Our affordable, compassionate, and high-quality healthcare is available to you by contacting us online.