Types of Headaches and Their Causes

They’re annoying, even painful, but most headaches aren't dangerous and are easy to treat with a basic pain reliever.

If your headaches are severe, happen a lot, or come with other symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about what kind of headache you might have. That way, you can choose the right treatment and perhaps prevent them.

Tension-Type Headaches

Almost everyone gets these from time to time. They bring on a dull, constant, non-throbbing pain that can make you feel as if your head is wrapped in a tight band. Your neck muscles may seem knotted, and parts of your head and neck may be sensitive to touch.

Tension-type headaches can be short-lived and happen rarely, or they can last for a while and come back often.

They’re often caused by stress, but other things like noise, eyestrain, poor posture, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, or grinding your teeth at night can also cause them.

Migraine Headaches

Migraines headaches  are some of the hardest types of headaches to live with. They usually begin with an intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head, which may spread. They also often cause nausea and vomiting. A migraine can last from a few hours to many days and can make people sensitive to light, smells, and sound. For some people, a warning sign, called an aura, comes just before a migraine attack. It can be a set of visual symptoms, like seeing flickering lights, blind spots, or zigzag lines, or other signs like numbness in a limb or a strange smell.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes migraine headaches. Most researchers believe the headaches begin in the nervous system. Because migraines often run in families, it seems likely that genes play a role, too.

For people who have migraines, many things can bring on an attack. Common triggers include

  • Too much alcohol
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Certain foods or smells
  • Naps
  • Dry winds
  • Changes in altitude or seasons
  • Changes in hormones
  • Birth control pills
  • Missing a meal
  • Lack of sleep
  • Neck pain 
  • Stuffy rooms

Migraines may also happen after intense emotions such as excitement or anger. Exercise, sex, other types of headaches, or very cold foods can also jump-start a migraine.

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Cluster Headaches

These got their name because they tend to come in bunches over weeks. An average cluster can go on for 6 to 12 weeks. Typically, they start hours after a person falls asleep. Sometimes, a mild ache on one side of the head will warn you that a cluster headache  is coming.

The pain is only on one side of your head (unilateral). It is severe, piercing and peaks within minutes. Your eye on the affected side becomes red and watery. And, you often have nasal congestion with a runny nose on that same side as well. It lasts from 30 minutes to 2 hours, then fades or disappears, only to come back a day or so later. Some people can have four or more attacks in a day. 

Cluster headaches can strike every day for weeks or months, and then stay away for a long time. They’re more common in men and tend to start between ages 25 and 50. Heavy smokers get them more often than nonsmokers. Stress, drinking alcohol, and eating certain foods play a role in triggering the headaches for some people, but doctors don’t know the root cause of them.

Sinus Headaches

Sinus  headaches come with pain in the forehead, nose, cheeks, eyes, and sometimes the top of the head. In some cases, they also make you feel pressure behind your face. Nasal congestion and blockage from seasonal allergies or an infection that leads to sinus congestion is the main cause, usually because of hay fever and other seasonal allergies, or a cold or the flu.

Sinus headaches aren't common, and after you treat one, it doesn't usually come back. Many people who think they're having sinus headaches actually have migraines.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephen D. Silberstein, MD on August 09, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Buchholz, D. Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain, Workman Publishing Company, 2002.

Livingstone, I. Breaking the Headache Cycle: A Proven Program for Treating and Preventing Recurring Headaches, Novak Owl Books, 2004.

Smith T. Drugs, 2004.

Young, W. Migraine and Other Headaches, Demos Medical Publishing, 2004.

Cady R. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, July 2005.

Cleveland Clinic.

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