Headaches: Know the Types and Treatments

A headache can significantly affect your day. Knowing the different types and treatments can help you get relief and back to your activities. In addition, knowing when to talk to your doctor about your headache is important.

Key takeaways:
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    Headaches are divided into two categories: primary and secondary.
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    The most common primary headaches are tension, sinus, migraine, and cluster headaches.
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    Acetaminophen and NSAIDs are effective treatment options for the majority of primary headaches.
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    If you experience any red flags, seek medical attention immediately.

Types of headaches

Headaches are divided into two main groups: primary and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches are divided into several types but the most common are tension, sinus, migraine, and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches occur as a result of another medical condition. The causes can include high blood pressure, infections, head injuries, and tumors, to name a few. These require medical attention. Knowing the red flags can help you obtain timely care.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and can last for 30 minutes to seven days. The pain can be experienced on both sides of the head. The pain is mild to moderate and in a band-like distribution. This type of headache does not worsen with mild physical activities (walking).

Stress and poor posture are two significant causes of tension headaches. Vitamin D and B12 deficiencies have also been correlated with tension headaches. Although the exact cause is unknown, identifying these triggers can help prevent a tension headache.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are the best treatment for tension-type headaches. Effective NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve).

Exercise programs, relaxation techniques, acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic adjustments are non-medicine alternatives. Exercise programs should focus on improving posture.

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches cause a constant dull ache in one or more locations such as cheekbones, ears, and teeth. The pain coincides with symptoms of the common cold or seasonal allergies (runny nose, congestion). Symptoms typically resolve within seven days of treating your cold symptoms.

Treatments include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) sinus congestion and allergy medications (pseudoephedrine, Benadryl, loratadine).
  • Saline nasal sprays.
  • Warm compresses.
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief.

Avoid using OTC sinus medications more than two to three days a week as they can cause medication-induced (rebound) headaches.

Migraine headaches

Migraine headaches typically last four to 72 hours and are experienced on one side of the head. The pain can be mild to severe, of a pulsating quality, and is often associated with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, noises and scents. These headaches are aggravated by activity.

The first-line OTC treatment includes NSAIDs, acetaminophen, and aspirin. Combination pain relievers are available that combine aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (one brand is Excedrin).

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of the head, typically around the eye. The symptoms last 15 minutes to three hours and can occur up to eight times a day.

These headaches typically do not respond to OTC medications. Talk to your doctor if you think you suffer from cluster headaches.

Red flags

If you experience any of these symptoms seek immediate medical attention:

  • If you experience any neurologic symptoms (weakness, numbness, seizures, vision changes, or mental confusion).
  • If you develop a sudden, severe headache (maximum severity at onset).
  • If you experience systemic symptoms (fever, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, or weight loss) with the headache.
  • If you experience a new type of headache after the age of 55.
  • If the headache awakens you from sleep or is associated with severe nausea and vomiting.
  • If you experience a headache after a head injury or trauma, especially if you take blood thinners.

Headaches can ruin your day but knowing the type of headache and available treatments can get you back to your activities. The majority of headaches can be treated with NSAIDs and acetaminophen. However, if you experience any red flags seek medical attention as this could be a sign of a more serious condition.


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