Understanding 5 Common Types of Headaches

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Woman with headache

Although no headaches are pleasant, they are not all created equal. There are several kinds of headaches, each with its own symptoms and treatment options, and correctly diagnosing yours can make the difference between living in pain or resuming a normal life. Knowing more about the five most common types of headaches may help.

Tension Headaches

A tension headache is the most common type of headache, often triggered by stress. You may feel a dull, aching pain in your head, tightness or pressure across your forehead or along the side and back of your head, and tenderness in your scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles. A variety of medications can be used to relieve the pain, but if you suffer from chronic tension headaches, your doctor may also prescribe a preventive medication, such as an antidepressant or muscle relaxant. Lifestyle remedies include relaxation, meditation,  maintaining a good diet and limiting caffeine.

Migraine Headaches

Migraines may feel similar to tension headaches, but there are some differences. For instance, migraines may be associated with nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and visual disturbances and will get worse with physical activity. Migraines often have four distinct phases: prodrome, aura, attack, and postdrome. The pain will be on one or both sides of your head and have a throbbing quality. Pain-relieving and preventive medications may be prescribed, and some lifestyle changes suggested. If traditional options fail, consider alternative migraine treatments such as acupuncture.

Sinus Headaches

When your sinuses become inflamed, the swelling and blockage from the extra mucus combine to cause pressure and pain. Sinus headache pain is usually deep and constant, concentrated around the cheekbones, forehead, and bridge of the nose. It will likely be accompanied by other sinus-related symptoms, such as a runny nose, earaches, facial swelling, and fever. Sinus pain is usually treated by fighting the infection with antibiotics and the other symptoms with antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relievers. Drinking more fluids and using a humidifier or nasal spray can also help.

Cluster Headaches

Although cluster headaches are rare, they are one of the most painful, described as throbbing, burning, constant, or piercing. They are marked by intense pain concentrated around one eye — enough to wake you up and make you pace — and often occur seasonally, in the spring or fall. If the usual pain relief and preventive medications do not help, surgery to block the trigeminal nerve is another option. Recent studies have been testing whether small doses of hallucinogenic drugs may help relieve cluster headaches, as some patients claim.

Rebound Headaches

Overuse of pain medication can make your symptoms worse and even cause new rebound headaches. Rebound headaches are especially likely if your medication includes caffeine and is taken regularly. As the medicine wears off, you experience withdrawal symptoms; you relieve them by taking more medicine, then rebound into another headache. The best treatment is to discontinue or gradually decrease use of the pain reliever in question.

Of course, lifestyle factors, including alcohol, poor posture, and stress can compound the issue. Since headaches often symptoms of a larger problem, it is always best to discuss them with your doctor. He or she can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

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