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When Your Head Aches

Your pain may be constant or throbbing, and it may get worse over time or not. But one thing is certain: When you have a headache, it’s hard to think about anything else. The more you know about each type, and which ones affect you, the better you can manage them.

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Tension-type Headaches

They used to be called muscle contraction or stress headaches and are the most common kind. The pain is usually on both sides, and you may feel as if a belt is tightened on your head or something is pushing on your face, head, or neck. You also may be more sensitive to light and sound. 

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Tension-type Headaches: Causes

Physical postures that strain your head and neck muscles -- like when you hunch over a computer for hours or pin your phone to your ear with your shoulder -- can cause these. Stress, intense work, missed meals, depression, anxiety, and too little sleep can affect the muscles in your neck, face, scalp, and jaw, and lead to them, too.

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Tension-type Headaches: Treatment

If a health issue -- like arthritis, teeth grinding, or sleep apnea -- is causing them, your doctor will treat that first. If that doesn’t help or you don’t have any other health problem, he might suggest an over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. A hot shower or a warm washcloth on the back of your neck might help. If those don’t work, you might try meditation or another relaxation technique to manage your stress.

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Migraine Headaches

Throbbing pain builds, typically on one side of your head. It can be intense, and talking or walking can make it worse. You might be nauseated and sensitive to light, noise, or smells. Food cravings or changes in how much you pee can happen the day before a migraine. Some people also have an “aura” before, during, or after one. You could see flashing lights or wavy lines, or have blind spots.

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Migraine: Causes

There are different theories about why some people develop the condition known as migraine and others don’t, but genetics and the environment may play roles. Triggers for migraine headaches can be different for each person, but hormonal changes, stress, sleep problems, strong odors, tobacco, missed meals, flashing lights, and anxiety often bring them on. So can certain foods and drinks: Common food triggers are wine, aged cheeses, pickled foods, pepperoni, and salami.

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Migraine: Treatment

It’s best to rest with your eyes closed in a quiet, dark room with something cool on your forehead. Drink lots of fluid, especially if you’re vomiting. Your doctor may prescribe drugs, either to prevent migraines or ease your symptoms. But using these too often can lead to “rebound” headaches, so follow your doctor’s instructions. You also might keep a journal of what you do or eat right before a migraine to figure out your triggers.

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Cluster Headaches

These come on suddenly and are very painful. They happen on one side of your head, often behind one eye. They often show up at the same time of day for several weeks. The pain typically is worst 5 to 10 minutes after it starts and can last 3 hours. Your nose and eye may get red and swell on the side where the pain is, and you may be sensitive to light, sound, or smell. You might have an aura (like with a migraine) and feel nauseated beforehand.

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Cluster Headaches: Causes

Because they’re more likely to happen at night, some doctors think they might be caused by irregular sleep. Alcohol -- especially red wine -- and smoking may also be triggers. Your chances of getting them are higher if they run in your family or you’ve had some kind of head injury. They happen more often in the spring and fall, and they're sometimes mistaken for allergies.

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Cluster Headaches: Treatment

Your doctor may suggest a kind of therapy where you breathe pure oxygen to make less blood flow to your brain. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why, but studies show that this can help most people who get cluster headaches. She may also prescribe triptan drugs -- also used for migraines -- that narrow blood vessels and ease pain. In more serious cases, a preventative like verapamil  is given.

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Sinus Headaches

Most people who think they have these actually have migraines. With both types, you can have pain in your face, nasal congestion, and watery eyes, and both may get worse when you lean forward. But a sinus infection, which brings on sinus headaches, also causes thick, yellow mucus, and you might have a fever and trouble smelling, too. You don’t have those symptoms with migraines.

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Sinus Headaches: Treatment

A sinus infection usually gets better on its own within a week or so, and when it's gone, your headache should be, too. If it lasts longer, you may have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics. Your doctor also may suggest you clear your sinuses with a saline solution, or she might give you corticosteroids to help with inflammation.

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Secondary Headaches

These are brought on by an illness or condition that affects your brain. A sinus headache is an example, because it’s caused by an infection. Other conditions that can cause headaches include concussions, a problem with your blood vessels, brain tumors, and seizures.   

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Secondary Headaches: Treatment

Your doctor will work with you to figure out what’s causing them and how to treat that condition. Once you’ve taken care of the other problem, your headache should get better.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 11/23/2019 Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 23, 2019


1) Thumbnail:  Sebastian Kaulitzki / Thinkstock



American Migraine Foundation: “Sinus Headaches.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Migraine Headaches.”

Mayo Clinic: “Sinus Headaches: Symptoms,” “Sinus Infections -- Most Clear Up without Antibiotics,” “Chronic Sinusitis.”

National Headache Foundation: “Oxygen Therapy.”

National Institutes of Health: “Meninges,” “Headache: Hope Through Research.”

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 23, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.