4 types of headaches and what they’re trying to tell you

We’ve all experienced a headache at some time or other (they’re among the most common ailments going), but head pain can take many forms.

While most of the time, headaches are relatively minor and will go away on their own (or calm down with an over-the-counter painkiller), for some people they can be a chronic problem and a serious blight.

If this is the case, it’s important to properly identify what type of headache you’re experiencing, as this can determine the appropriate course of treatment. There may also be specific ‘triggers’ that would be useful to avoid.

Although most headaches are not a sign of anything serious, if you’re experiencing ongoing headaches, or if you also have other symptoms alongside the head pain, it’s always best to check in with your GP. If that doesn’t help and headaches are significantly impacting your quality of life, a referral to a headache specialist could help ensure you get the help and advice you need.

Here, we’ve outlined four different types of headache and how to manage them…

1. Tension-type headaches

Young man suffering from headache, migraine or hangover at home

Tension-type headaches are very common

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache, characterised by a dull pain, tightness or pressure around your forehead. It can often feel like there is an invisible band or clamp circling your head. Most tension-type headaches last for 30 minutes to several hours, but in more severe cases they can last for several days. As well as head pain, some people also report pain and stiffness in their neck.

As the name might suggest, excessive emotional stress or pressure at work, for example, can often trigger these headaches. The NHS says that factors like poor posture, dehydration and squinting may also bring on the symptoms.

Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to help relieve pain in the short-term, but it’s important not to over-use over-the-counter medications. Speak to your GP or pharmacist for advice if symptoms persist for more than a few days. In the long-term, lifestyle measures – such as yoga, massage and exercise – can all help with managing symptoms and underlying stress.

2. Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are more likely to occur in your 30s or 40s

Ever experience mega-intense bouts of headaches that cause excruciating pain around or behind one eye? It could be a cluster headache.

Cluster headaches are rare, and while anyone can potentially get them, the NHS says they’re more common in men and tend to start when a person is in their 30s or 40s.

As well as a sudden piercing pain that radiates from the eye to one side of the head, cluster headaches can also cause the eye to water or swell up, your face to sweat and your nose to run. They’re notoriously immensely painful and debilitating. It’s not exactly clear why they occur, but they’ve have been linked to activity in part of the brain called the hypothalamus.

If you think you’re experiencing cluster headaches, make an appointment to see a GP. Tests may be required to rule out any other conditions that can have similar symptoms, and help accurately diagnose the condition.

Also, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol aren’t effective for cluster headaches. Your doctor or a specialist will be able to discuss suitable treatment strategies with you, such as sumatriptan injections or oxygen therapy.

3. Sinus headaches

Sinusitis can cause nasty headaches

Headaches can often be brought on by other medical conditions, such as sinusitis.

Your sinuses are hollow pockets inside your forehead, cheekbones and behind your nose. When these become inflamed, often as a result of an infection, they swell and produce more mucus, which can block the channels that drain them. This build-up pressure can lead to sinus pain, which may be mistaken for a regular tension-type headache.

Sinusitis usually clears up on its own in a few weeks, but getting plenty of rest, water and taking painkillers can help relieve symptoms. Your pharmacist might also recommend decongestant nasal sprays or drops to help unblock your nose and relieve some of the pressure.

For some people, sinusitis can become a chronic problem, or possibly be linked with an acute bacterial infection. If symptoms are very severe or keep coming back, check in with the doc.

4. Migraine headache

man lying in bed at home suffering from headache or hangover

Migraine attacks can have a huge impact

Millions of people in the UK are living with migraine, which left unchecked can have an extremely debilitating impact on day-to-day life.

The first thing to know is that a migraine isn’t actually a headache – the name refers to an extremely painful collection of neurological symptoms, one of which is throbbing head pain. Additional symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and increased sensitivity to light or sound.

Migraines can also come with an ‘aura’ – which usually involves visual disturbances, and sometimes suddenly feeling dizzy and disorientated – signalling the start of an attack. Migraines also tend to come and go on a long-term basis, with ‘attacks’ brought on by certain triggers.

The NHS advises that you should see a GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms, particularly if they occur on more than five days per month. While there is no cure, a number of treatments are available to help soothe symptoms and minimise or prevent attacks.

Over-the-counter painkillers may not be effective, and could also cause additional headaches if taken for too long – so it’s important that migraine is properly diagnosed and managed.

During a migraine attack, many people find resting or lying in a darkened room and avoiding bright lights and screens helps too. Keeping a symptom diary can help with identifying any individual triggers too (these may be certain foods, activities and stress).

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