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Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

Welcome to the second article in our series on headaches to commemorate National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. To read the migraine article, click here.

Headaches come in a variety of forms including tension, cluster, migraine, sinus, hormone, caffeine, exertion, hypertension, rebound, post-traumatic and more. According to The Cleveland Clinic, more than 90 percent of people who visit doctors for headache relief suffer from primary headaches, or headaches without a structural cause such as a tumor. We’ve broken down the types of primary headaches below.

Tension Headaches

Also called stress headaches, tension headaches are the most common headache type among adults. These can be chronic, episodic or irregular, although only about 3 percent suffer from daily tension headaches. Chronic cases are diagnosed when tension headaches occur for more than 15 days per month, while episodic tension headaches typically occur once or twice a month with a maximum of 15 days per month.

Symptoms

  • Mild-to-moderate pressure affecting the forehead, temples or back of the head that lasts from 30 minutes up to multiple days
  • Constant, band-like tightness around the head
  • Scalp, neck or shoulder sensitivity

Some causes

A variety of stimuli can cause tension headaches, although heredity is not one of them. Some of the causes include:

  • Tight back, neck or scalp muscles
  • Lack of rest
  • Poor posture
  • Environmental, emotional or mental stress

Tension headaches can be treated through over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, as well as stress management and rest.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are less common than tension headaches, but they are more severe. These headaches tend to begin in patients under 30 years old. Unlike tension headaches, which are more common in women, cluster headaches typically occur in men. Cluster headaches affect less than one in 1,000 people.

Cluster headaches are aptly named as they can occur up to eight times per day, in clusters of two weeks to three (or more) months. These headaches have the capability to go into remission for years before a future recurrence. While daytime attacks are common, attacks one or two hours after falling asleep are typically the most severe.

Symptoms

  • Quick bursts of pain, typically reaching full strength within five to 10 minutes
  • Severe burning or piercing pain on one side of the head, typically located behind one eye and spreading to the upper gum, nose, cheek, temple or forehead
  • Throbbing or constant pain
  • Pulsing arteries on or around the scalp
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Headache duration of 15 minutes to three hours, although it typically lasts 30 to 90 minutes
  • Headache recurrence throughout the day, usually during the same time of day
  • Swelling, drooping or redness of the affected eye
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Sensitivity to light

Some causes

  • Seasonal changes 
  • Sleep apnea
  • Frequent tobacco and alcohol usage

If you believe you are experiencing cluster headaches, visit your doctor to discuss treatment and prevention options.

Migraines

Women are about three times more likely to be affected by migraines than men. One migraine can last anywhere from four hours to three days or longer.

In some cases, a patient will experience an aura, or warning sign, prior to the beginning of the migraine. Approximately 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience auras before, during or after feeling migraine pain. Auras can include bright flashing lights, blind spots, distorted vision or vision loss, ringing in the ears and changes in smell, touch or taste.

Symptoms 

  • Changes in behavior prior to the migraine
  • Dull pain that evolves into throbbing or pounding sensations affecting one side, front or entirety of the head
  • Throbbing pain that moves from one side of the head to the other
  • Sensitivity to light, odor or noise
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain
  • Paleness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision

Causes

Though migraine causes aren't fully understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role. According to the Mayo Clinic, changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway, might be involved. So might imbalances in brain chemicals — including serotonin, which helps regulate pain in your nervous system.

It is common for those who suffer from migraines to also experience tension or cluster headaches. To read more about migraines, check out the recent On Your Health article All About Migraines.

When to consult a doctor

You should visit your doctor if you are experiencing frequent headaches that disrupt your daily life or have increasing severity or occurrence. The following headache symptoms are indicators that you should see your doctor for analysis and treatment.

  • Headache with a substantial change in intensity with positional changes (sitting down, standing up, lying down, etc.)
  • Headache caused by exertion (sneezing, coughing, physical exertion)
  • Extreme headache that reaches maximum severity within minutes
  • Significant increase in frequency or characteristics of headaches
  • Headache accompanied by fever, night sweats, weight loss or chills
  • Migraine aura symptoms (face and upper extremity tingling and/or visual changes) that last longer than one hour
  • Constant headache on only one side of the head

Headaches can be symptoms of a more serious condition.

Visit your local emergency room or dial 911 if you are experiencing a sudden, severe headache accompanied by:

  • Fainting
  • Fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Difficulty seeing
  • Stiff neck
  • Weakness, numbness or paralysis on one side of the body
  • Nausea or vomiting

Home remedies to ease headache pain

Headaches can be triggered by a wide variety of natural factors, including fatigue, stress, allergies, posture, low blood sugar, eyestrain, hormones, dehydration, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies and more. We’ve broken down multiple natural remedies to help manage and prevent headache pain.

Magnesium: Magnesium helps the body properly digest and utilize proper levels of potassium, calcium and zinc. It can also assist in keeping the brain from transmitting pain signals that are present during headaches. Taking 200-420 mg of magnesium daily can help reduce the frequency of headaches. Magnesium is prevalent in fiber-rich foods such as beans, nuts, whole grains, seeds, leafy greens, broccoli and squash.

Essential Oils: Lavender and peppermint essential oils have been found to help alleviate headache symptoms when diffused. Peppermint can ease sinus pressure, relieving headache pain related to environmental factors. Lavender has calming properties that can assist in relaxation and stabilizing mood. 

Hot or cold compresses: Applying a compress wrapped in a thin cloth to the temple or other location of headache pain can assist with relaxation and pain. The temperature of the compress varies based on the type of headache. Migraines tend to react better to cold compresses as the cooler temperatures can cause blood vessels to restrict and release pressure around the head. Tension headaches tend to respond better to warm compresses as this can help alleviate muscle tension in the face, neck and jaw.

Caffeine: During the early stages of a headache or migraine, blood vessels begin to enlarge. Caffeine contains properties that restrict and narrow blood vessels, thus lessening headache pain. Unfortunately, too much caffeine can cause insufficient sleep or a rebound headache (a symptom of withdrawal).

Hydration: Proper hydration is beneficial for all bodily functions, including headache prevention. When the body becomes dehydrated, the brain can temporarily shrink, pulling away from the skull, due to fluid loss. This contraction typically results in a dehydration headache. Rehydration allows the brain to return to its normal size, alleviating the pressure and ending the headache. To stay properly hydrated, it is recommended that men drink approximately 13 cups of water per day while women should drink nine.

Rest: According to the American Migraine Foundation, “nearly half of all migraines occur between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m.” Sleep, mood and headaches are caused by the same types of neurotransmitters, so insufficiency in one can cause the other. Regular sleep patterns resulting in seven to eight hours of sleep per night can help prevent headaches. In the case of current migraines, lying in a dark, quiet room can also provide relief.

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