Causes and Types of Headaches

Your headache pain isn't severe, but of course you want it to stop. To find the fix that works for you, you first need to know what type of headache you have.

Primary Headache

This means the headache is the main medical condition. This includes:

  • Migraines
  • Tension-type headaches
  • Cluster headaches
  • Chronic daily headaches
  • New daily persistent headaches

It’s probably a primary headache if:

  • You’ve had it for many months or years.
  • Your family has a history of similar headaches.
  • You don’t have any other health problems.
  • It’s triggered by
    • Hormones
    • Weather
    • Foods
    • Light, sound, or smell

Migraine

They aren’t all alike. The pain can range from mild to severe. You might hurt on only one side of your head. It can throb and get worse with physical activity.

Migraine can have many triggers, including:

  • Stress
  • Foods such as alcohol, aged cheese, and processed meats
  • Caffeine (either from too much or from withdrawal)
  • Menstruation
  • Tension or fatigue
  • Skipped meals
  • Changes in your sleep patterns

Besides head pain, migraine can make you sensitive to light, noise, and smells. You may have "auras," which means you have blurred vision or see spots, dots, or wavy lines. You may also have nausea and fatigue.

Tension Headache

If you get one of these, you'll usually feel pain on both sides of your head or neck, not just on one side. Some people say it feels like a band around their heads. Triggers can include:

These headaches aren't typically made worse by physical activity, light, smells, or sounds. And they usually don't come with nausea and vomiting.

Yours are "episodic" if you get them fewer than 15 days a month. They're "chronic" if you get them more often than that.

Chronic Daily Headaches

You have this type of headache 15 days or more a month for longer than 3 months. Some are short. Others last more than 4 hours. It’s usually one of the four types of primary headache:

  • Chronic Migraine
  • Chronic tension headache
  • New daily persistent headache
  • Hemicrania continua

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Cluster Headaches

These severe headaches affect one side of your head. The pain is often near or around your eye. You’ll have them regularly for a period of weeks or months. They’ll disappear for months or maybe even years, then come back again.

You’ll also notice:

  • Red or teary eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Flushed or sweaty face
  • Sense of restlessness or agitation

They last from 15 minutes to 3 hours and can happen once a day or eight times a day. The headache may wake you up from sleep.

Hemicrania Continua

This chronic, ongoing headache almost always affects the same side of your face. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain that varies in severity
  • Red or teary eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Contracted iris
  • Responds to the pain medication indomethacin
  • Physical activity can make the pain worse
  • Alcohol can make the pain worse

Some people also notice migraine symptoms like

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

There are two types:

  • Chronic: You have daily headaches.
  • Remitting: You have headaches for 6 months. They go away for a period of weeks or months and come back.

New Daily Persistent Headache

These may start suddenly and can go on for 3 months or longer. Many people clearly remember the day their pain began.

Doctors aren't sure why this type of headache starts. Some people find that it strikes after an infection, flu-like illness, surgery, or stressful event.

The pain tends to be moderate, but for some people, it's severe. And it's often hard to treat.

Symptoms can vary widely. Some are like tension headaches. Others share symptoms of migraine, such as nausea or sensitivity to light.

Call your doctor if your headache won't go away or if it's severe.

Secondary Headache

This type of headache is caused by another medical condition. In other words, the headache is a symptom. This can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Infections
  • Injury
  • Blood vessel problems

It may be a secondary headache if:

  • It’s the worst headache you ever hard.
  • It’s the first headache you ever had.
  • It came on quickly with no warning.
  • The pattern changes.
  • It started before you were 5 or after you were 50.
  • You have cancer or HIV.
  • You’re pregnant.
  • You have an underlying health condition.
  • The headache causes fainting or seizures.
  • You get the headache after you exercise, have sex, or squeeze your body.

They're not all alike. See which of these common types of secondary headache sounds like yours.

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Rebound or Medication Overuse Headache

If you take headache medicine too often, it can backfire. Your pain can come on stronger and more often. Doctors call this a "rebound" or "medication overuse" headache.

You'll need to work with your doctor to find the right treatment. Often, you just have to cut back on the medicine you take.

Sinus Headache

These result from sinus congestion and inflammation, typically from a cold, the flu, or allergies such as hay fever.

The sinuses are air-filled cavities around your eyes, nose, and cheeks. A sinus headache is a dull, deep, and throbbing pain in your face and head. If you bend down or lean over, the pain can get worse. Cold and damp weather can make it hurt more, too.

Posttraumatic Headache

This usually starts 2-3 days after a head injury. You’ll feel:

  • A dull ache that gets worse from time to time
  • Vertigo
  • Lightheadedness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Tiring quickly
  • Irritability

Headaches may last for a few months. But if it doesn’t get better within a couple of weeks, call your doctor.

Thunderclap Headache

People often call this the first worst headache of your life. It comes suddenly out of nowhere, lasts about 5 minutes, and goes away. Causes of this type of headache include:

  • Blood vessel tear, rupture, or blockage
  • Head injury
  • Hemorrhagic stroke from a ruptured blood vessel in your brain
  • Ischemic stroke from a blocked blood vessel in your brain, due to a blood clot or plaque
  • Narrowed blood vessels surrounding the brain
  • Inflamed blood vessels
  • Blood pressure changes in late pregnancy

Take a sudden new headache seriously. It’s often the only warning sign you get of a serious problem.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 08, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: "Migraine Headaches," "Tension Headaches."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Rebound Headaches."

Merck Manual: "Tension-Type Headache."

Seminars in Neurology: "Diagnosis and Management of Chronic Daily Headache."

University of Maryland Medical System: "Sinus Headache."

American Migraine Foundation: "Tension-type Headache."

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Headaches: In Depth.”

American Migraine Foundation: “Cluster Headache,” “Secondary Headaches,” “Thunderclap Headaches.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Headache causes and diagnosis in adults (Beyond the Basics).”

Mayo Clinic: “Chronic daily headaches.”

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