Headaches - types of headache


Headache is one of the most common ailments. But not all headaches are the same - the location of the pain, how severe it is, how long it lasts and how often it occurs, and sometimes what brings on the pain, are some of the variables that doctors use to define different types of headache.

Knowing what type of headache you have can help you and your doctor to manage and treat your headaches.


Tension headache
This is the most common type of headache - most adults will have experienced a tension headache.

Caused by muscle tension in the head, neck and shoulders.
Steady, non-throbbing, mild-to-moderate pain on both sides of the head.
Feels like a tight band of pressure around the head.
Can occur often.
Lasts for two hours up to a few days.
Is often brought on by emotional stress or a busy day.

Migraine headache
About 15% of adults have migraines. Women are affected two to three times more often than men, and hormones are thought to play a role.

Throbbing pain usually on one side of the head.
May be preceded by an 'aura' of symptoms, such as seeing a moving pattern or blinking lights in front of you.
Often debilitating and accompanied by nausea and, sometimes, vomiting.
Can last from four hours up to three days.
Can cause sensitivity to bright lights or noise during the headache.
Often runs in families.
Can be brought on by stress, certain foods, changes in the weather, lack of food, lack of sleep, as well as a range of other factors.

Cluster headache
This is a relatively uncommon, severe headache that is much more common in men than women.

Occurs once every day for a few days or weeks to months - a so-called 'cluster'.
Can occur at the same time every day during a cluster.
Very severe stabbing pain on one side of the head that usually lasts only one or two hours.
Pain is usually centred on one eye, which often becomes watery and red.

Chronic daily headache
Dull, mild-to-moderate pain on both sides of the head.
Can occur on and off, every day.
Sometimes causes nausea, and aversion to light, noise and smells.
Can be associated with anxiety or depression.
At times, may be accompanied by migraine.
Can be due to 'rebound' headache, which results from overuse of pain medications.

Hormone headache
Some women experience severe headaches including migraines at times when their hormones fluctuate, for example, around the time of their period each month or around the time of ovulation.

Exertional headache including 'sexual' headache
Some people get a headache associated with exercise, sport or sexual activity. A 'sexual headache' can occur before or after orgasm; it can be severe and last for several hours. Some people experience a sudden, severe headache at the point of orgasm.


Eye strain headache
If you have visual problems that have not been addressed by prescription glasses or contact lenses, you can get an eye strain headache, which typically causes pain and a weighty feeling around the eyes.

Temporo-mandibular joint headache
Some people may get muscle tension and pain related to a disorder of the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ), the joint just in front of each ear, where your jaw bone connects to your skull.


Ice-cream headache
Eating something very cold can cause a sharp pain in the middle of your forehead or over one temple. People who get migraines may be more likely to get an ice-cream headache - so-named because it comes on immediately after eating ice-cream.


Other headaches
Many other headaches are a secondary effect of another disorder, such as:

a neck problem;
irritation of nerve fibres, eg, trigeminal nerve neuralgia;
eye, ear, sinus, tooth and jaw problems;
inflammation of an artery in the head (temporal arteritis);
a head injury;
a hangover from drinking excessive alcohol; or
withdrawing from drugs such as caffeine or narcotics.

Warning signs
People may worry that their headaches may be due to a serious brain problem, like a brain tumour, a brain haemorrhage or a brain infection such as meningitis. This is rarely the case, as most headaches do not reflect an underlying brain disorder. If a brain disorder is present, other symptoms apart from headache also tend to occur.


Seek medical attention when you have:

a headache that is 'the worst I've ever had';
a change in the pattern of your headaches, for example, from mild and occasional headaches to severe and frequent headaches;
a new type of headache;
a sudden-onset headache;
a progressively worsening headache over days or weeks;
a headache that is accompanied by neck pain and fever (which can indicate meningitis), or by co-ordination problems, fits (convulsions), changes in personality, and weakness on one side of the body (which can indicate a serious brain disorder).