4 Types of Headaches and How to Relieve Them, According to Headache Experts

Combat brain pain with these doctor-approved prevention and treatment strategies.

woman with headache
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As many as 1 in 20 humans suffers from headaches—not just every so often but nearly every single day, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization. Nearly all of us fight a headache at least occasionally, and a whopping 1 in 7 people are impacted by migraines, the most debilitating type of headache, and women are three times as likely to have migraines as men (thank those hormones).

But even the mildest of headaches can throw you off your game. We spoke to two doctors for the scoop about the different types of headaches we might experience, plus how to feel better fast.

What Is a Headache, Exactly?

"Headache" is a large umbrella term for any sort of pain in any area of or all of the head, ranging from dull to sharp. Each headache type tends to vary based on location, intensity, frequency and cause.

"Headaches are different for everyone and can be triggered by many things. Certain foods can trigger headaches, such as chocolate, alcohol and aged cheeses. Other triggers include changes in sleep, stress and weather changes. All of these are specific to the individual," says Billy Yung, M.D., a neurologist at Westmed Medical Group in White Plains, New York. "Just because you know someone who can't eat chocolate because it triggers their headaches, it doesn't mean you need to avoid chocolate too."

Medication, hormonal shifts, hunger, dehydration, depression, sleep apnea, excessive medication use and certain types of light can also lead to headaches.

"Patients with high stress are more likely to experience headaches. Stress can be a trigger for the most common types of headaches," explains Holly N. Thomas, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

They can also be hereditary, the Cleveland Clinic adds. A headache diary can help determine what might be causing your personal headache symptoms. Apps like Manage My Pain can make this easy to track on the go.

The 4 Types of Headaches and How to Relieve Them

While there are actually more than 150 types of headaches, the Cleveland Clinic says, the following are the most common types of headaches Americans tend to experience.

1. Tension Headaches

About 1 in every 3 people experience tension headaches, the WHO estimates, which involve moderate tension on both sides or one side of the head, often near the temple area, plus possibly pain in the back of the head or upper neck. These headaches rarely involve vomiting or nausea, but they can be so common that those who suffer from them feel the aches every single day.

"Tension headaches are classically caused by stress," Yung says, so treatments often focus on muscle relaxants, physical therapy or over-the-counter pain relievers with anti-inflammatory properties.

If you work at a desk with a computer, having a comfortable work setup can definitely help prevent tension headaches, Thomas advises.

"Dealing with stress in a healthy way, such as through mindfulness meditation, can also reduce the stress that might lead to a tension headache," she says. (Psst ... these stress-fighting foods can't hurt, either!)

2. Migraine Headaches

Migraines are the second most common type of headache—just after tension headaches—and about 12% of adults suffer from them, reports the Migraine Research Foundation. The intense, throbbing pain generally presents on one side of the head only, and lasts for a couple hours or up to three days. Sensitivity to light and sound and loss of appetite are fairly common symptoms, and some migraines are so severe that they lead to nausea or vomiting. Unfortunately, migraines can also partner with another one of the common headache types to occur as a "mixed headache" (for example, a migraine and tension headache).

Due to those hormones we mentioned, women make up 75% of total migraine sufferers, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Researchers believe that migraines are genetic and chronic, and while there's currently no cure, patients can manage symptoms by identifying triggers, adapting their lifestyle and using medications as needed.

Supplementing with riboflavin and magnesium may help prevent migraine headaches, Thomas says. "Eating a healthful diet and getting eight hours of sleep each night may also prevent migraines." Supplementing with riboflavin and magnesium may also help. (As always, talk to your doctor before beginning any new dietary supplements.)

Other potentially beneficial migraine treatments include:

  • Getting a massage or using a massage gun (you don't have to ask us twice!)
  • A hot or cold compress
  • Resting in a dark and quiet space

"You can use over-the-counter pain medications, like Tylenol, ibuprofen, naproxen or Excedrin to treat the pain as needed," Yung says. "But try not to overuse it, otherwise you might be at risk for rebound headaches. When patients take pain medication too frequently, say, every day for weeks to months, the body reacts to this and it actually causes more headaches. This leads to a vicious cycle where frequent pain medication use causes more frequent headaches, which leads to the patient taking more pain medications, which worsens the rebound headaches."

3. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches come on quickly and tend to disappear fairly fast—this type of headache typically lasts 20 minutes to 3 hours. The tricky part is that cluster headaches sometimes occur every single day, and potentially multiple times during one day with similar levels and locations of pain each time. And they're pretty much always the most painful type of headache. Cluster headaches are always one-sided, Stanford Health Care says, and might come packaged with a one stuffy nostril, a teary eye, a droopy eyelid or one larger pupil.

These headaches can be triggered by heat, light, alcohol or tobacco use or nitrate-rich foods (such as processed deli meats or bacon). Quitting smoking can help, if applicable, as can blood vessel-relaxing medications, steroid medications that reduce inflammation and swelling, prescription nasal sprays or injectable medications.

4. Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches differ from the three headache types above because they are not the condition itself, but are pain symptoms in the head and neck triggered by something else. Meningitis, a brain tumor, a neck or brain injury or a condition in the jaw, teeth or eyes could be the cause.

While rare, secondary headaches might just be the most important type of headache to become aware of. They come on quickly and feel excruciatingly painful—if this ever sounds familiar, seek medical care immediately.

The Bottom Line

Headaches are very common and can often be treated at home with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicine. That said, "if you have fever, changes in your vision, a particularly severe headache or a headache that causes nausea and vomiting, you should see a doctor," Thomas says. "Also, if you are having frequent headaches—more than one or two per week—you should also speak with a doctor."

If your headaches are becoming much more frequent or interfering with your quality of life (perhaps you have to take a sick day from work or school, or miss book club because of your brain pain), contact your medical team, Yung adds.

Any headache that lasts longer than 72 hours without 4 or more hours of pain-free time in the interim is also a sign you should seek out your doc's advice.

Up next: This Tool Helps My Migraines and Makes My Skin Glow.

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