There Are 4 Different Types of Headaches. Here's How to Tell Which One You Have (and How to Treat It)

In our experience, every headache is an unpleasant one. But why is it that some feel like a different pain than others? Should we be treating each headache differently? We checked in with Dr. Ian Smith, physician, author and host of The Doctors, for more information. He told us about the four most common types of headaches: migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches and sinus headaches, along with how to spot and treat each one.

woman with a headache
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1. Migraines

Migraines “can be identified by the pain they cause, often severe and throbbing or a constant, sometimes intense pulsing sensation on one side of the head that can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting as well as extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia),” Dr. Smith explains. You have two options: symptom relief, which can include medications such as triptans, pain relievers, blood pressure-lowering medications, anti-nausea medications and treatments like Botox—and prevention of future attacks. That means addressing sleep hygiene, stress levels, diet and exercise, and identifying headache triggers. And, as always, consult your healthcare provider for a personal assessment.

2. Tension Headaches

This type of headache is caused by—you guessed it—your body being too tense. According to Dr. Smith, tension headaches “are commonly described as feeling like a tight band or vise has been clamped around the head.” Unlike migraines, this headache causes mild to moderate pain that can present itself as tenderness on the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles or maybe just a dull, aching head pain. Dr. Smith says treatment options include over-the-counter pain relievers, combination drugs such as aspirin or acetaminophen combined with caffeine or a sedative in a single medication, or muscle relaxants.

3. Cluster Headaches

Most common in spring and fall, Dr. Smith says cluster headaches are distinguishable by how they present themselves, “usually in patterns or clusters in which there are bouts of frequent attacks that can last from weeks to months, then can go away for long periods of time—months or even years—before coming back.” His suggestion: medications such as pain relievers, triptans, calcium channel blockers and synthetic hormones like octreotide can all help cluster headache pain.

4. Sinus Headaches

These ones are tricky. According to Dr. Smith, “many sinus headaches, unfortunately, are misdiagnosed because they share symptoms with other headaches,” i.e., you could be experiencing a migraine with other cold-like symptoms. A true sinus headache is borne of a sinus infection, whose symptoms also include runny nose, stuffy nose, watery eyes and pressure in the forehead and cheeks. Treatment options are directed at relieving your symptoms of the sinus infection, “so antibiotics, decongestants like the ones found in Mucinex All-in-One, pain relievers, corticosteroids, and allergy medications can all be helpful depending on your symptoms and their root causes,” Dr. Smith explains.

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