3 Different Types of Headaches and How to Deal with the Pain

There are over 150 types of headaches, but here are the main iterations you should know about.

woman head clenching eyes with geometric shapes overlaid
Photo: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Headaches are way more complex than you might realize. For starters, there are over 150 different types of headaches, which vary based on location, pain intensity, and duration. Generally speaking, however, headaches fall into two major categories: secondary headaches, which are related to another condition or injury (e.g. a concussion), and primary headaches, which aren't due to another medical condition, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Primary headaches are more common of the two and account for about 98 percent of all headaches, according to a study from the National Center of Biotechnology Information. Just because they're so prevalent, however, doesn't mean you just suffer through them. The first step to dealing with a throbbing noggin? Figuring out the type of headache you're experiencing. Ahead, learn more about the three major categories of primary headaches, including their causes and treatments.

What Are the Different Types of Headaches?

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache people experience, says Wade M. Cooper, D.O., a practitioner who specializes in neurology and a clinical professor at the University of Michigan. "Typically, a [tension headache] appears bilaterally (on both sides of the head) and is from a mild to moderate intensity." In addition to pain, you may also feel pressure or tightness around your head as well as soreness in the neck and shoulders, according to the Mayo Clinic. "On top of that, the headache can also have either light sensitivity or sound sensitivity, but [typically] not both," adds Dr. Cooper.

Tension headaches can be episodicor chronic, according to the Mayo Clinic. If they occur 15 or more days a month for at least three months, they're considered chronic, while anything less than that is episodic.


Migraines are characterized by intense or severe pain that usually occurs on one side of the head, though they occur bilaterally about 40 percent of the time, according to Dr. Cooper. No matter their location, however, migraines tend to process through four stages, although not everyone experiences all of them.

The first stage of a migraine, aka prodrome, occurs a day or two before the migraine and causes subtle changes in your body (e.g. mood changes, neck stiffness, frequent yawning), according to the Mayo Clinic. The second stage is known as an aura and involves temporary changes to the nervous system, such as vision loss or the sensation of pins and needles in your arms and legs, about an hour before the headache begins.Then, comes the attack, which is the headache itself, followed by post-drome, which may cause you to feel drained or tired up to a day after the migraine.

Other symptoms of migraines include light or sound sensitivity (sometimes both at the same time), throbbing pain that lasts for as little as four hours or up to three days and gets worse with physical activity, and nausea or vomiting, explains Dr. Cooper. To be diagnosed with a migraine, however, you need to experience nausea in addition to the pain, he adds.

Distinguishing between a tension headache and a migraine can be tricky because of the overlap in symptoms. A key difference between these two types of headaches, however, is that tension ones don't usually impair one's ability to function, while migraines do, says Dr. Cooper. (

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a type of headache that occurs cyclically during stretches of time known as cluster periods, which can last weeks or even months, according to the Mayo Clinic. During a cluster period, you may experience a headache every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and each one can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. When a cluster period ends, the pain usually subsides as quickly as it began and the patient might feel exhausted after the attacks.

"Cluster is unique because it's exclusively one-sided,"says Dr. Cooper. "It also has prominent eye-watering or nasal stiffness just on the side of the headache."

What Causes the Different Types of Headaches?

Unfortunately, the cause of these types of headaches isn't well understood, says Dr. Cooper. That being said, experts believe that during aheadache, an unknown mechanism activates specific nerves that affect muscles and blood vessels and trigger a pain signal to the brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"Tension headaches can occur with anything that irritates the nervous system," notes Dr. Cooper. "That can be [disruptions to] sleep, stress, or skipping meals." Fluctuations in hormones can also trigger headaches, which might be one of the reasons why people who menstruate tend to suffer from headaches more than those who don't, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

With migraines specifically, stimulation of the senses from bright or flashing lights, loud sounds, or strong smells can also bring on this type of headache, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cluster headaches, on the other hand, are believed to be triggered when your body's biological clock gets thrown off. For instance, it's common for cluster headaches to occur seasonally during the spring or fall because of daylight savings, which can disrupt your internal clock, according to Mount Sinai.

Family history may also affect your risk of experiencing cluster headaches and migraines, according to the Mayo Clinic. If someone in your family is prone to these conditions, it's more likely you'll experience them too.

How to Treat Different Types of Headaches

To prevent or treat a headache, it's helpful to try to avoid triggers, whether that means maintaining a regular meditation practice to manage your stress levels or developing a healthy sleep routine (read: no more revenge bedtime procrastination) to ensure you get enough zzz's. Another good way to prevent or ease the different types of headaches? A gentle massage to the neck, shoulders, or temples — something you can easily DIY by rubbing and squeezing the areas with light pressure. "The nerves into the neck and shoulders feed directly into the same nerves responsible for head sensitivity," explains Dr. Cooper.

That said, if your primary headache still isn't getting better,over-the-counter medication (think: NSAIDs such as Advil or Excedrin) can very effective when you're experiencing pain, says Dr. Cooper. "If someone finds they're not getting a good response within an hour of the medication or they have to use that medicine more than three or four times a month, however, they likely need a more prescribed therapy," he says. In other words, consult your doctor to best determine what might be causing your headaches and how to effectively treat them.

For frequent or severe headaches, a doctor may prescribe medications, such as Imitrex (a type of drug that stops the process causing the headache pain) or Topamax (which works to prevent headaches as well as reduce their frequency and duration), according to the Cleveland Clinic. (

Your doctor might also recommend biofeedback training, which involves connecting your body to electrical sensors that monitor your bodily functions (e.g. muscle tension, heart rate). The goal of this treatment is to help build awareness of how your body responds to stress so that you can learn how to best calm down and control your body to ultimately improve your condition, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, stress can trigger a headache and also cause increased muscle tension and heart rate. Being aware of those reactions can allow you to prevent a headache from coming on by engaging in relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

"For people who assume that's just how life is [dealing with headaches], that's not the case," says Dr. Cooper. "There are ways to get better." When in doubt, seeking advice from a doctor or medical professional is always your best bet.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles