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

From work stress to sinusitis, headaches can have many causes.

mature woman with a headache

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
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. Factors such as 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 overuse 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
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, 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 the 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
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 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
Migraines can have an extremely debilitating impact on day-to-day life when left unchecked.

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.

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).

Do you suffer from headaches? What’s the best treatment that you have found?

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    Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.


    To make a comment, please register or login
    2nd Jul 2020
    I have suffered from debilitating migraines for 60 years - started when I was 10. Only thing that works now is, darkened room, water, stemetil, panadeine forte or endone - depending on the severity. I have tried all of the you beaut migraine pills - nothing worked. I just live with them now.
    2nd Jul 2020
    I really feel for you. I started when I was 10 yrs old and went on relentlessly. I looked like someone who had had a stroke with half my face sagging.
    Mercifully they gradually stopped after I reached 55.
    One thing did help was cutting out bread, sugar and cakes and biscuits.
    A small price to pay for less pain. I also lost a bit of unwanted fat.
    2nd Jul 2020
    Yep I was diagnosed at 12! 50+ years and counting. No over the counter medications work for me. I have to self inject to get relief. That way you don't have to swallow anything which is a good thing since the digestive system shuts down and anything taken by mouth simple sits in the stomach and doesn't get absorbed. You might as well through it directly into the toilet!
    2nd Jul 2020
    Thanks Maggie and KSS. When I was young they (Drs.) said it was hormonal and periods would fix them - nope. When I got older they said menopause will stop them - nope. Still got them. What my pet hate is when my Dr. leaves town, we get a newbie and I have to convince them I am not a drug addict I do have migraines - usually they believe me when they are called to the hospital when I am so sick, I can't see and the pain is 15/10. No doubt you 2 know this, They never read your notes if they can help it.
    bloke in the bush
    2nd Jul 2020
    ... one serious headache they don't mention is Hypnic Headaches ... these are a rare type of headache that wakes people from sleep. They're sometimes referred to as alarm-clock headaches. Hypnic headaches only affect people when they're sleeping at night and usually wakes you up and are hard to get rid of ... the main cause ( so I am told by my specialist ) is SLEEP APNEA ... ( very important to consult your GP and get tested as sleep apnea can lead to stroke ) ... I am speaking from experience - had night headaches probably about once a week for ages - got tested - yes to SA - now on a ventilating machine each night - no headaches ...
    2nd Jul 2020
    My husband has Sleep Apnea - has a ventilator - no headaches - I don't have it, so no ventilator, although my husband has said I do snore sometimes
    2nd Jul 2020
    or headaches related to Chiari 1 daily headaches that pain killers dont fix
    2nd Jul 2020
    What is Chiari 1???
    2nd Jul 2020
    Dehydration is a common cause of headache. I always drink a large glass of water and wait half an hour, prior to taking a painkiller
    2nd Jul 2020
    Zomig (zolmitriptan) has been a life saver for me when migraine strikes, although with the idiotic demonisation of opiates, good old mersyndol is no longer available to keep in the cupboard, let alone send someone to the chemist to grab for you. These days it's zomig, but if I've missed it & taken it too late, it's useless paracetamol, stemetil, sunnies, darkened room & often crying until it passes.
    3rd Jul 2020
    I've been suffering from the classic migraine for years. I've seen a neurologist who did very little to help me. I'd tried various medications early on but when you feel like your head is in a vice, experimentation I the last thing to consider.

    Coedine and paracetamol seems to be the only remedy and taken as soon as the aura begins, followed by a dark quiet room.

    Also worth noting, and mentioned to every conversation of such, stay away from Orange juice!! One particular dr mentioned this to me years ago. He said a migraine would follow immediately after its consumption. I followed his advice as I'd wonder why drinking fanta, from memory, could trigger one the next day. Although I don't get as many, eliminating orange juice has helped. These days, it's more to do with stress or dehydration, which are known triggers.
    3rd Jul 2020
    You are right Julian. I can drink freshly squeezed orange juice BUT not the processed stuff like Berri - I get very sick if I drink that.
    3rd Jul 2020
    Veritas I feel your pain have been suffering for 52 yrs I use codeine, Imigran I like Endone but can't take it as it interferes with other medications I take. I use to take Caffegot but Australia stopped importing them they were great not on the PBS but I didn't care because they really worked. Sometimes I take No Doze to starve it off until I get home I usually take about 600 mgs Trouble is the preventive medicine makes me so out of it I don't take them any more I have done tests and scans and still they don't know So I learn to live with them just like you Veritas
    4th Jul 2020
    I started migraines at 35, used Mersyndol, when I came to Oz, I got Immigran, when they were $30 per tablet. Now always have Zomig on hand. Still get migraines occasionally, now 70, it can sometimes be tension, or even a hard to hear phone call that can set it off. I know to avoid most wines/champagne - chardonnay and anything from the pinot grape sets me off. Will only drink 2 glasses max, got to be Malborough Sav Blanc. Never had a headache from it. Keep hydrated, very important. going back to orange juice, naturopath told a colleague that its the preservatives/waxed cartons in Berri orange juice 30 years ago. My daughter gets classic migraines, maybe 4 - 6 a month. Sick for 2 days, completely laid up. She went to a neurologist recently, he gave her something on trial, she did not have a headache for 3 months, if she were to continue it would be $900 per month. Magnesium very important in the body, but there is so much crap around. Most of us are deficient in it. I ran out of my usual, and bought one recommended by chemist because it also helps me sleep. Showed it to my Functional Medical doctor and he said, throw it away, theres nothing in it, its the filings so to speak. I think that was Mag Ororate - or similar. Also B vitamins are very important, most of us dont get enough from our over processed food, however, folic acid is not good for a lot of people, and it must be folate. Folic acid as a supplement is very bad for a lot of people, but they wont know unless they have a gene test, unfortunately a lot of GPs dont know enough about this.
    5th Jul 2020
    In my 20s I suffered from excruciating migraines that could lay me up for up to three days but, as I got older, they changed to scintillating scotoma aura disturbances which upset my vision with no pain. They became quite frequent in my 60s and early 70s (and were a bugger when driving) until a neurologist prescribed propranolol (inderal/deralin). I have taken three half tablets daily (1/3 of 40mg) for the past couple of years and attacks are now extremely rare and very mild when they do occur.
    7th Jul 2020
    My arithmetic went a bit awry: "1/3 of 40mg" should be "1/2 of 40mg, ie. 20mg", three times a day.

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