What are the different types of headaches?
Headaches are a global problem that affects people regardless of age, race, income level, and geographic area. Globally, the prevalence of headaches among adults is about 50%. Between a half and three-quarters of people aged 18-65 around the world have had headaches within the past year, and more than 30% of these people have reported migraines. But what differentiates the various types of headaches from one another?
Doctors categorize headaches into two main groups: primary (headaches are the main problem), and secondary (headaches are caused by an underlying condition). Tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines are three types of primary headaches that are commonly known. Although they can be similar, a migraine has specific signs or symptoms that allow it to be distinguished from a tension headache or cluster headache. Learn about the symptoms of each type below.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache that can be described as mild to moderate pressure all around the forehead, temples, and back of head. This headache can be caused by environmental factors such as dehydration, overuse of medication, allergies, and drinking too much caffeine. Tension headaches often worsen with activity but are responsive to rest and over the counter medication such as Advil.
Cluster headaches occur in clusters (or groups) as the name suggests. They can happen up to eight times a day during what is called a “cluster period” which may last from two weeks to three months. These headaches can go into remission after a cluster period but will recur later on. This type of headache is described as an intense burning or stabbing pain behind the eyes. The pain can also be located around just one eye, but does not switch sides.
Migraine is a neurological disease, which can also be inherited. It is characterized by recurrent bouts of moderate to severe headaches on one side of the head, and can also develop from tension headaches. The attack usually lasts from several hours to several days. Furthermore, migraines cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea and sensitivity to light, sounds or smells. In some cases, the pain and symptoms can be so intense that it is almost impossible to participate in daily activities.
When is it time to see a doctor?
The Cleveland Clinic estimates that there are up to 150 types of headaches. As there is such a large variety and symptoms can also vary, it is best to have a doctor examine your symptoms in order to determine the type of headache you are experiencing. Keeping a headache diary can be beneficial in helping your physician diagnose and coordinate the best treatment plan for you.
Generally speaking, some signs that you may want to speak to a doctor regarding your headaches include:
- The intensity or frequency of headaches increase without improving
- You need to take painkillers every day to relieve headaches
- You need to take multiple doses of painkillers to relieve headaches
- Headaches are triggered by exercise, bending, or coughing
You should also pay attention to symptoms that may require immediate medical care, as these might be an indicator of serious underlying diseases:
- Headaches with fevers, shortness of breath, rashes, and stiff neck
- Severe nausea and vomiting
- Headaches occurring after a head injury
- Headaches with neurological symptoms (seizures, paralysis, numbness or tingling, speech difficulties, etc.)
- If you are over of old age and experiencing new types of headaches