Types of Headaches: An Expert's Guide

Headaches are a common problem that can range from mild to severe. The most common primary headache is a tension headache, which is characterized by a dull, aching sensation all over the head. Cluster headaches are marked by intense burning and pain, while migraine headaches are some of the most difficult types of headaches to live with. They usually start with severe, throbbing pain on one side of the head and can spread, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

The cause of migraines is still unknown, but most experts believe they start in the nervous system. Genes may also play a role, as migraines are often inherited. Tension headaches can be short-lived and occur infrequently or last for a while and recur frequently. If you experience them less than 15 days a month, they are considered episodic; if more than 15 days a month, they are chronic.

Continuous hemicrania is a headache that lasts for at least three months without changing sides or going away. It is usually moderate but can get better or worse and sometimes develops into a brief, piercing pain. Migraines are often described as throbbing pain that can last from four hours to three days and usually occur one to four times a month. Along with pain, people may experience sensitivity to light, noise, or odors; nausea or vomiting; loss of appetite; and stomach or abdominal upset.

In children, migraines may be accompanied by paleness, dizziness, blurred vision, fever, and an upset stomach. A small number of childhood migraines include digestive symptoms such as vomiting about once a month. These headaches are the most serious. Cluster headaches are marked by severe burning or throbbing pain behind or around one eye. The eyelid may droop on the side of the pain, the eye may turn red, the pupil may become smaller, or the eye may produce tears.

The nostril on that side may run or fill up. Sinus headaches cause deep, constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose when sinuses become inflamed. Pain usually occurs along with other sinus symptoms such as a runny nose, fullness in the ears, fever, and swelling of the face. The key to treating a headache is understanding what type it has, what triggers it, and addressing that specific problem. Once you know the type of headache you have, you and your doctor can find the treatment that is likely to help you and even try to prevent it.

Chemical activity in the brain, nerves, or blood vessels surrounding the skull or muscles of the head and neck (or some combination of these factors) may influence primary headaches such as migraines and tension headaches. Some people may also carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches. Most headaches fall into the main category of primary headaches which are not due to another condition but rather are the condition itself. Secondary headaches have an underlying cause such as a head injury or sudden withdrawal from caffeine. Knowing what type of headache you have is critical to finding relief and potentially preventing them in the future.

If you have any type of headache all the time it's important to talk to your primary care doctor so they can help you create a treatment plan or refer you to a specialist.

Debora Lehneis
Debora Lehneis

Award-winning food advocate. Subtly charming bacon practitioner. Alcohol enthusiast. Proud travel aficionado. Incurable twitter scholar.

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