Different types of headaches and how to recognize them

While it is true that headaches are painful and unpleasant, the fact is that they are a common problem faced by people all over the world. According to the World Health Organization, about half of the world’s population suffers from some form of headache at least once a year. Although headaches can be painful and debilitating, more often than not they can be treated with simple pain relievers and plenty of rest. However, if headaches are too frequent or constant, then they may be indicative of some underlying disease. This article discusses some of the more common types of headaches that people report experiencing.

Types of headache

Headaches are generally divided into two categories – primary and secondary.

Primary headache– Primary headaches are basically where the headache itself is the main problem. It is not a symptom of an underlying disease, but a disease in itself that needs treatment. Although they can be very painful and debilitating at times, they are not very dangerous. Because the brain cannot feel pain, the pain you experience is the result of inflammation in pain-sensitive areas of the body near the neck and head, including nerves, blood vessels, and muscles.

Among the several categories of primary headache, some of the most common are:

  • Migraine headache
  • Tension headache
  • Hypnic headache
  • Cluster headache

Secondary headache– Secondary headaches are caused by some underlying problem that triggers pain-sensitive areas in the head and neck. Although secondary headaches are rare, there are many more dangerous than primary headaches because they can be (but are not necessarily) indicative of some serious problems.

  • Conditions that cause secondary headaches may include:
  • Brain tumors
  • Aneurysm
  • Meningitis
  • Neck or brain injury
  • Sinusitis, etc.

Different types of headaches are described below

Migraine headache: A migraine headache usually begins with an intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head that may spread. They also often cause nausea and vomiting. Migraines can last from a few hours to many days and can make people sensitive to light, smells and sounds. Doctors aren’t sure what causes migraine headaches. Most experts believe they start in the nervous system. Because migraines often run in families, it seems likely that genes also play a role. For people who have migraines, many things can trigger an attack.

Common migraine triggers include:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Certain foods or smells
  • Dry winds
  • Changes in altitude or seasons
  • Changes in hormones, such as menstruation
  • Contraceptives
  • Lack of nutrition
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Stress or tension etc.

Tension headache: Almost everyone gets one from time to time. They cause a dull, constant, non-throbbing pain that can make you feel like your head is wrapped in a tight band. You will usually feel pain on both sides of your head or neck, not just one side. Your neck muscles may feel knotty, and parts of your head and neck may be tender to the touch. These headaches are usually not made worse by physical activity, light, smells, or sounds. And they usually don’t come with nausea and vomiting.

A tension-type headache can be short-lived and infrequent, or it can last for a while and recur frequently. They are “episodic” if you get them less than 15 days a month. They are “chronic” if you get them more often than that.

Causes of tension headaches can include:

  • stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Neck pain
  • Hunger
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • depression
  • Bad posture
  • Jaw or teeth problems

Hypnic headache: Hypnic headache is one of the rare types of headache that usually starts when people are in their 50s, but it can start earlier. People also refer to them as an “alarm clock” headache and they wake people up at night.

A hypnotic headache consists of mild to moderate throbbing pain, usually on both sides of the head. It can last up to 3 hours, while other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

People can get several attacks every week. The cause of hypnic headache is not clear and there are no known causes.

Although hypnic headaches are harmless, an older adult experiencing an unusual headache for the first time should seek medical attention. The doctor may want to rule out migraines and cluster headaches.

Cluster headache: They get their name because they tend to come in bunches for weeks. An average cluster can last from 6 to 12 weeks. They usually start hours after you fall asleep. Sometimes a slight pain will warn you that a cluster headache is coming.

Usually the pain is only on one side of the head. It is often near or around the eye. It’s heavy and piercing and peaks in minutes. The eye on the affected side becomes red and watery, and there is often a stuffy nose with a runny nose on that side.

This headache lasts from 15 minutes to 3 hours and then fades or disappears, only to reappear a day or more later. Some people may experience eight or more attacks a day.

Cluster headaches can occur every day for weeks or months and then go away for a long time. They are more common in men and usually start between the ages of 25 and 50. Heavy smokers get them more often than non-smokers.

Cluster headache triggers may include:

  • stress
  • I drink alcohol
  • Eating certain foods
  • Smoking

Some other types of headaches include

  • hemicrania continuum
  • ice pop headache
  • thunderclap headache
  • allergy or sinus headache
  • hormonal headache (aka menstrual migraine)
  • caffeine headache
  • medication overuse headache
  • headache on exertion
  • hypertension headache
  • ricochet headache
  • post-traumatic headache
  • spinal headache

NOTE: The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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