Types of Headaches

What are headaches?

Headaches are characterized by pain in any part of the head. They are second only to the common cold as the most frequently-heard medical complaint and manifest in many different forms – all with their own causes and characteristics.[1]

A headache can be localized to one part of the head or affect the whole head; the pain can also vary in sensation, severity and frequency.[2] A range of treatment options are available for headaches, with the chosen method dependent on the type of headache and its causes. In most instances, headaches can be managed effectively through medication, lifestyle changes or a combination of the two.

Types of headaches – causes, symptoms and treatment

There are many different types of headache – some estimate as many as 150 – with differing causes and symptoms.[3] However, all can be sorted into two overarching categories: primary and secondary.[4]

  • Primary headaches are headaches that are due to the headache condition itself and not to any other cause.
  • Secondary headaches are headaches that are present because of another condition, e.g. a sinus headache from sinusitis.

The most common types of headache include:

  • Tension headaches
  • Migraines
  • Cluster headaches
  • Sinus headaches
  • Hormonal headaches
  • Caffeine-triggered headaches
  • Hypertension headaches
  • Hangover headaches
  • Exertion headaches
  • Tumor headaches
  • Post-traumatic headaches
  • Chronic, progressive headaches

Tension headaches

Tension headaches, or stress headaches, are the most common type of headache in adults. They are classified as primary headaches, as they are not a symptom of another condition or injury. The principal cause of tension headaches is thought to be stress, either a single stressful situation or a buildup of stress over a long period of time. Additional triggers may include lack of sleep, weather changes, excessive muscular tension, especially in the neck and shoulder area, and, in some people, the after effects of drinking alcohol.[5][6]

The sensation associated with tension headaches is often described as a dull pain or pressure around the head or neck. Although they can be considerably painful, in most cases, tension headaches do not affect an individual’s ability to work or carry out daily tasks. If tension headaches occur under 15 times per month, they are classified as episodic tension headaches, whereas if they occur 15 times or more per month they are classified as chronic tension headaches. Both can last anywhere from around 30 minutes to a number of days, though chronic headaches will generally last longer.

Pain medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen can be effective in treating tension headaches.[7] Taking measures to reduce stress, such as exercise, meditation, therapy or using breathing techniques, can also be effective in preventing the onset of tension headaches, but are most effective when practiced on a regular basis.


Migraines are powerful primary headaches which are often accompanied by severe pain, nausea, light sensitivity, hypersensitivity to sounds and vomiting.[^8] Migraines can be triggered by stress, hormonal changes, certain foods (including alcohol, cheese and certain additives), caffeine and tiredness, among other factors. They can also have a significant hereditary component, with the approximate calculation that, if both parents suffer from migraines, a child has a 75 percent chance of inheriting the condition. Migraines can last anywhere from a few hours to a number of days.

Pain relievers such as triptans, ergotamine, aspirin and ibuprofen are the usual drugs prescribed to individuals experiencing migraines. In extreme cases, when migraines are frequent and intensely painful, preventative medication may be prescribed. These can include drugs like beta blockers (e.g. propanolol), antidepressants, e.g. amitriptyline, and certain anti-seizure drugs (e.g. topiramate).[8]

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a type of primary headache without a known cause.[9] Cluster headaches occur as a series of relatively short but severely painful headaches – generally every day for a number of weeks or months at a time. In most cases, the headaches will happen at the same time each year. The pain associated with cluster headaches is often described as a powerful burning or throbbing sensation, which is usually limited to one side of the head, as well as behind or around one eye. They tend to last for a short period of time – roughly 30 to 90 minutes – most often one to three times per day over a number of weeks or months.

Ordinary pain relievers tend to be ineffective against this type of headache. Instead, the inhalation of oxygen or lidocaine nasal drops are two of the preferred treatment methods.

Sinus headaches

The sinuses are hollow cavities in the cheekbones, behind the forehead and in the nose. When they become inflamed, most commonly as a consequence of an infection or an allergic reaction, the pressure that builds up can result in headache-like pain, termed as sinus headaches.[10] The pain can be constant,range from mild pressure to severe pain, and is sometimes accompanied by a fever, runny nose and swelling of the face as signs that the sinuses are inflamed.

Decongestants or antibiotics can be effective in treating this type of headache, as they will help to treat the underlying sinus infection..

Hormonal headaches

Fluctuating levels of the hormone estrogen during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause, as well as a result of certain contraceptives (contraceptive pills, for example) and hormone replacement therapy, can lead to acute or chronic headaches in women. When particularly severe, these headaches are described as menstrual migraines and may be accompanied by some of the other symptoms of migraines, such as nausea and vomiting.[11]

Pain relievers and triptans can be effective in treating hormone headaches.[12]

Caffeine-triggered headaches

Caffeine headaches are typically a symptom of caffeine withdrawal or sensitivity. Those who consume caffeine sporadically or who consume a large amount of caffeine within a short amount of time, are typically more at risk of caffeine headaches.[13] This type of headache can be painful – normally beginning behind the eyes and progressing into the forehead area. In severe cases, the headache can develop into a migraine.

Treating a caffeine headache may involve the use of over-the-counter pain relievers, drinking plenty of fluids or avoiding caffeine completely.

[^8] Mayo Clinic. “Migraine - Symptoms and causes.” April 26, 2017. Accessed August 1, 2017.

  1. Migraine. “Headache Types.” August, 2014. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  2. Mayo Clinic. “Headache: Definition.” May 4, 2016. July 31, 2017.

  3. WebMD. “Headache Basics.” May 13, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  4. Migraine. “What is the difference between a primary and secondary headache?” March 18, 2011. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  5. WebMD. “Tension Headaches.” May 13, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  6. Amboss. “Kopfschmerzen.” 15 December 2017. Accessed: 13 February 2018.

  7. WebMD. “Headache Treatment Options.” March 18, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2017.

  8. Mayo Clinic. “Migraine - Diagnosis and Treatment.” April 27, 2017. Accessed August 1, 2017.

  9. emedicinehealth. “5 Types of Headache (Cont.)” November 3, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  10. WebMD. “Sinus Headaches.” May 13, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.

  11. Healthline. “Hormonal Headaches: Causes, Treatment, Prevention, and More.” November 7, 2016. Accessed August 1, 2017.

  12. Mayo Clinic. “Headaches and hormones: What’s the connection?” October 23, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2017.

  13. NCBI. “Caffeine and headaches.” August 12, 2008. Accessed August 16, 2017.