Advertisement

10 Types of Headaches and How to Combat Them

Headaches are common, but if you don't know what kind of headache you have, medication could make it worse.
Headaches are common, but if you don't know what kind of headache you have, medication could make it worse.
©iStockphoto.com/shauni

When we say that something gives us a headache, we mean that it's unpleasant, much like the literal headache it's likely to cause. Headaches are one of the most common maladies, but that's no comfort when you have one.

Tension causes many headaches, and treatment usually involves taking a couple of aspirin and relaxing. But sometimes headaches become chronic, plaguing you despite your best efforts to thwart their head-splitting effects. As we'll learn later, your attempts to treat headaches will sometimes make them worse. Often, our assessment of a headache's cause is incorrect, and this leads us to attempt corrective action that gives no relief. In this article, you'll learn about headaches and how to limit the agony they cause.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Don't stare too long at the screen or pour yourself a cocktail, but do check out the next page to start learning about different types of headaches and how can you combat them.

You may think your headache stems from sinus pressure, but stress could be the culprit.
You may think your headache stems from sinus pressure, but stress could be the culprit.
©iStockphoto.com/DegasMM

Winter has finally ended, bees are enjoying the pollen and children are happily playing in the grass, but you're sneezing, wheezing and wishing your face would finally explode to release the pressure in your sinuses. In addition to watery eyes and a running nose, you have a headache that seemingly won't quit until winter rolls around again.

There's a chance your sinuses aren't entirely to blame for your aching head. Both sinus and allergy headaches are rarer than you think, and they often take the fall for headaches caused by other sources.

Advertisement

Advertisement

That's not to say seasonal headaches don't occur, especially during spring and summer months. So what happens when a change in seasons does cause our heads to hurt? The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the skull. When the sinus drainage system is backed up, your sinuses become inflamed. This will make you look and feel sick, giving you a runny nose, fever, pain and sensitivity in the front of your head and face.

If your headache is sinus-related, don't bother treating the headache itself; instead, treat the underlying cause: your inflamed sinus cavities. You can do this using a saline nasal spray, a humidifier or prescription antibiotics (only if a bacterial infection caused the inflammation).

The same applies for any allergy-related headache -- resolve the allergic reaction, eliminate the allergen itself and your headache will go away, as well.

Next: Mama never said there'd be days -- or months -- like this.

Even thinking about this headache's name nearly gives you a headache. Cluster headaches seem to come out of nowhere and cause excruciating pain, usually on one side of the head. They feel most intense around the temple area and create an unsettling sense of pressure directly on your eye.

Cluster headaches are rare, and they usually last about an hour. "Cluster" refers not to the location of the headache pains, but to the period of days, weeks or months over which the headaches will occur. After you've suffered through a cluster of them, they'll often suddenly go away for months or even years.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Researchers are getting closer to understanding cluster headaches, and they know the hypothalamus -- the area of your brain that controls your autonomic nervous system and regulates hormones, sleep, libido, breathing and other automatic body processes -- becomes active when they occur, but they don't know why. When the hypothalamus acts up during these episodes, it stimulates a nerve pathway along the base of the brain, causing eye pain. Blood vessels on the surface of the brain swell, causing the squeezing sensation.

If you get cluster headaches, cut out drinking and smoking to give yourself a better shot at a cluster-headache-free existence. Interestingly, oxygen therapy -- breathing pressurized oxygen through a mask for a few minutes -- can help shrink swollen blood vessels. Extreme cases may call for surgery to block the trigeminal nerve, which triggers the pressure in your eye.

On the next page: a thousand curses upon this dreaded type of headache.

Migraines are probably the most infamous -- and dreaded -- of all types of headaches. Nearly one in 10 Americans suffers from migraine headaches and most of those sufferers are female [source: Stoppler]. These head crushers are caused by inflammation of the blood vessels and arteries that wrap around the brain, which literally squeezes your brain until it hurts.

Your body's nervous system may respond with an exaggerated "fight or flight" response, albeit one that predicts you've lost the fight or your bid to escape. You'll feel nausea, slowed intestinal absorption, increased blood pressure and heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Because of the slowing down of your digestion process, pain relief medications (cruelly) aren't absorbed as quickly, delaying your relief.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Migraines cause intense throbbing pains, usually around the temple areas. The agony may last several hours or even days. Some people see auras, usually flashes of light that serve as warnings that a migraine is on its way. Currently, there's no easy fix for migraines, but a variety of options does exist. Treatments include preventive and curative medicines such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), triptans (drugs that reduce the swelling of blood vessels on the brain), opiates, beta-blockers and antidepressants. Though people react in different ways to each treatment option, keep hope that your doctor will help you find a combination of approaches to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches.

Tension-type headaches (most of us know them as tension headaches) are quite common, but they're still not well understood. This type of headache varies in intensity and frequency. You may go through a period of having almost-daily severe cranial smashers, or you may experience a tension-type headache once in a blue moon, hurting only enough to irritate you.

At some point in life, seven out of 10 people will have tension-type headaches [source: New England Center for Headache]. Commonly, this type of headache causes a decentralized, dull pain that makes your brain feel like it's in a clamp.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Your neck and shoulders will be tight, and you'll feel especially sensitive to light and sound. As the name implies, stress and anxiety are both often triggers for these headaches, and you can treat them with simple relaxation and over-the-counter (OTC) headache medication.

Some people find themselves plagued day-in and day-out by chronic tension-type headaches, and may find comfort through prescribed antidepressants, which are often used in the battle against headaches because of their headache-relieving analgesic qualities. Others, though, may find they can keep tension-type headaches at bay by reducing stress and treating themselves periodically to a professional massage.

Is it eyestrain, or could your headache stem from sitting in the same position for too long?
Is it eyestrain, or could your headache stem from sitting in the same position for too long?
Jupiterimages/Pixland/©Getty Images/Thinkstock

While watching too much TV or reading in the dark doesn't hurt your vision (that's just a myth), those activities may hurt your head. However, the link between the two may not be solely attributable to eyestrain.

Many of us log heavy hours sitting in front of the computer or television, often staying too long in the same position or even falling asleep while twisted into the contours and folds of the sofa.

Advertisement

Advertisement

A first line of defense is periodic movement -- stretch it out! Instead of demanding a family member bring you popcorn while you watch afternoon game shows, take the initiative during commercial breaks to rise up from your nest in the family room and journey into the kitchen to get your own popcorn. Now you're moving!

If you sit for long periods in an office chair at work (or in your home office), request or treat yourself to a more spine-friendly desk chair. If you do a lot of work on your computer, try to use screens with antiglare qualities. Even wearing tinted glasses during the day may prevent eyestrain headaches.

Finally, if you continue having headaches that seem related to eyestrain, see an eye specialist to make sure you don't have undiagnosed eye issues that are causing the problem. New eyeglasses or prescription lenses may just do the trick.

Next: a gender-specific headache type.

Women may experience headaches because of the ebb and flow of hormones in their bodies. Specifically, estrogen and progesterone (or the relative lack thereof) are to blame. These headaches are also sometimes called menstrual migraines (but not within earshot of anyone who's experiencing them). This may account for why more females report migraine headaches than males, since hormone headaches and migraines share many of the same symptoms.

The days leading up to menstruation are when women are most likely to experience hormone headaches. The amount of estrogen in a woman's body plummets shortly before menstruation begins, and sometimes this chemical shake-up can trigger a killer headache. Using birth control pills may also trigger them.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Applying a cold compress to your neck and head can help, as does massaging your neck and shoulders. Relief from hormone headaches can also be found in the (doctor-consulted) use of diuretics, Advil, Motrin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), as well as prescription drugs.

Another somewhat unconventional (and temporary) treatment for hormone headaches is pregnancy. Most women report their hormone headaches go away sometime around the second trimester, but that's not always the case.

Menopausal women who battle hormone headaches can try estrogen patches that deliver a steady, daily release of estrogen and progesterone.

Next, we'll learn how good medicine can sometimes lead to worse headaches.

When your head aches, you generally reach for a painkiller. But did you know that your medication could be the cause of your headache, not the cure.
When your head aches, you generally reach for a painkiller. But did you know that your medication could be the cause of your headache, not the cure.
©iStockphoto.com/gemphotography

While you can sufficiently handle many headaches with over-the-counter pain relievers, sometimes too much headache cure is the source of new headaches.

When aspirin or other OTC analgesics don't do the trick, many people up the dosage, increase the frequency of their use or turn to stronger prescription painkillers for headache relief. For some people, these analgesics (both OTC and prescription) actually worsen their headaches, leading to greater use of analgesics. This puts them in a downward headache spiral as they continue increasing the use of the very substance that's worsening their headaches.

Advertisement

Advertisement

It's not clear why this is, but researchers speculate that frequent analgesic use alters the way certain receptors work in your brain [source: Mayo: Rebound Headaches]. Medication-induced headaches often cause pain that's widespread, or located in different parts of head. However, this type of headache doesn't bring with it sensitivity to light or other common migraine symptoms.

People who experience medication-induced headaches should taper their use of painkillers (after consulting with their doctor, of course). The bad news is that the headache often worsens after coming off painkillers, and can stay worse for days or even weeks.

However, if you can bear the period of prolonged headache without succumbing to the temptation of taking analgesics, you might find yourself breaking free of this cycle -- and these headaches.

Keep reading, and we'll discuss the New Year's Day headache.

This young woman in glamour punk style lies in the empty bathtub and holds her head. Could it be a hangover?
This young woman in glamour punk style lies in the empty bathtub and holds her head. Could it be a hangover?

The hangover is the most easily preventable headache, but arguably the most fun to help produce. Excessive alcohol consumption often leads to what feels like brain death the next day. Unfortunately, there's no magical number of drinks that you have to consume to get the dreaded hangover. Much like our decision-making process after we've already had a few, there's a bit of randomness to it -- a single wine spritzer may crush one person's head, while repeated keg stands bounce off the brain of another.

Nausea, shakiness, bloodshot eyes and deep regret over the previous night's karaoke performance usually accompany hangover headaches. Nobody's sure what exactly causes hangovers, but many factors are at play: dehydration, blood-vessel expansion, immune-system response, falling blood-sugar levels and substances called congeners -- toxic chemicals that are a byproduct of fermentation and that appear more often in dark liquors than in clear liquors.

Advertisement

Advertisement

While nearly everyone who's experienced a hangover has his or her own unique attempts at a cure, common treatments include sleep, fluids, darkness, snacks and OTC pain relievers. But take note that consuming aspirin and alcohol simultaneously increases the risk of damage to your intestinal lining and may damage your liver.

Put on your helmet, because headache worlds collide in the next section.

While migraines are usually episodic, sometimes they become regular, unwelcome fixtures in a person's life. When this happens, these headaches are referred to as transformed or chronic migraines.

Though more frequent, the pain involved in transformed migraines is throbbing and vascular, where each "lub-dub" of your heart brings an accompanying "ouch, ouch." Fortunately, the pain is less severe than traditional migraines.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Overuse of medication may contribute to the ongoing episodes. These headaches can also be triggered by (or blended with) tension headaches. And the longer you experience periodic migraines, the more likely these headaches will transform into chronic migraines.

One way to prevent them is to maintain a healthy weight and develop good coping methods for stress in your life. Left unchecked, these difficult-to-treat headaches can cause depression and anxiety over time. However, a specialist may be able to find some combination of available migraine treatments to help prevent or relieve these reoccurring headaches.

Is America's favorite morning beverage worth the pain? We'll find out next.

Caffeine helps most of us start the day, but if you skip your cup of joe, you may suffer from a withdrawal headache.
Caffeine helps most of us start the day, but if you skip your cup of joe, you may suffer from a withdrawal headache.
©iStockphoto.com/PeskyMonkey

It's the perfect advertising campaign: Miss your coffee fix, and live to regret it. Coffee is enjoyed by people all over the world, and when people who drink the stimulating brew don't get their morning cup, many end up holding their head in their hands.

Caffeine withdrawal usually causes a throbbing headache, and the short-term cure is a pretty simple one: caffeine. Not only does caffeine withdrawal cause headaches, it causes fatigue and distraction. It can be hard to take care of the overall problem when the temporary solution is one pot of coffee away.

But why do our heads hurt when we don't get our beloved java? Researchers found that blood flow to the brain increases during caffeine withdrawal, causing the swelling of blood vessels so often involved in the "tight" feeling associated with headaches.

If you're trying to kick caffeine, lower your intake slowly over many days to avoid these pains, and then never worry about them again.

Or, have a double espresso and keep reading for lots more information about headaches.

UP NEXT

First Migraine-specific Drugs Show Promise in Studies

First Migraine-specific Drugs Show Promise in Studies

The first drugs specifically targeted to prevent migraines could be available as soon as 2018. Find out more about them at HowStuffWorks.


Related Articles

Sources

  • The American College of Gastroenterology. "The Dangers of Aspirin and NSAIDS." 2010. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.acg.gi.org/patients/women/asprin.asp
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Headaches and hormones: What's the connection?" May 29, 2010. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/headaches/HE00003
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Migraine: Definition." June 6, 2009. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Rebound Headaches: Definition." Dec. 8, 2009. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rebound-headaches/DS00613
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Tension Headache: Definition." Feb. 7, 2009. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tension-headache/DS00304
  • National Headache Foundation. 2007. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.headaches.org/
  • National Headache Foundation. "The Complete Guide to Headache: Headache Types -- Hormone." Nov. 14, 2007. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.headaches.org/educational_modules/completeguide/hormone.html
  • National Headache Foundation. "Transformed Migraine." 2010. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.headaches.org/education/Headache_Topic_Sheets/Transformed_Migraine
  • The New England Center for Headache, P.C. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.headachenech.com/faq/
  • Stoppler, Melissa Conrad, M.D. "Migraine Headache." Medicine Net, Inc. Jan. 8, 2010. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.medicinenet.com/migraine_headache/article.htm
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. "Sinus headache." Sept. 30, 2009. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/sinus-headache-000073.htm
  • University of Vermont. "Caffeine Withdrawal Headache Explained: Your Brain On -- And Off -- Caffeine." ScienceDaily. May 4, 2009. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090501162805.htm
  • Wedro, Benjamin C., M.D., FAAEM. "Headache." Aug. 4, 2010. (Sept. 29, 2010)http://www.medicinenet.com/headache/article.htm

Advertisement


Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement