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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 neurologist Molly Rossknecht, D.O., medical adviser for WeatherX, for more information. She told us that some of the most common types of headaches are migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches and sinus headaches, along with how to spot and treat each one.

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woman with a headache
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1. Migraines

Migraines “are characterized by moderate to severe throbbing pain that is usually one-sided but can be both sides, lasting hours to days,” Dr. Rossknecht explains. They are more common in women (ugh) and can come with other symptoms like light and sound sensitivity, nausea, vomiting or dizziness. “Some patients have an aura or symptoms prior to the migraine attack. It’s more or less a warning sign—usually a visual disturbance,” she adds. As for what brings on a migraine, Dr. Rossknecht says there are lots of triggers, including hormonal changes, dehydration, skipping meals, stress, weather changes (like a drop in the barometric pressure), lack of sleep, alcohol and even certain foods like MSG, aged cheeses or cured meats.

2. Tension Headaches

This type of headache is caused by—you guessed it—your body being too tense. According to Dr. Rossknecht, tension headaches are relatively common and often triggered by stress, poor posture and neck tightness. “The pain can be described as a mild, dull aching sensation wrapping around your neck and forehead,” she says. Unlike migraines, this type of headache doesn’t have the accompanied nausea and light and sound sensitivity.

3. Cluster Headaches

While women are more prone to migraines, guys are more likely to experience cluster headaches, which Dr. Rossknecht describes as a one-sided severe pain focused behind or around the eye. “Along with the stabbing, burning pain, cluster headaches can have associated symptoms of eye tearing, eyelid swelling, facial sweating, nasal congestion, eyelid drooping and redness of the eyes,” she tells us. She describes this type of headache as very debilitating, adding that they can last from 15 minutes to three hours and can happen multiple times in a day. The “cluster” part means that a cycle of daily headaches can last for months at a time and then stop completely for many months. Dr. Rossknecht notes that they’re most common in the spring and the fall.

4. Sinus Headaches

These can be a little misleading, because Dr. Rossknecht warns that sinus headaches are often just migraines with associated sinus symptoms. “Sinus headaches are only considered ‘true’ sinus headaches in the presence of a sinus infection characterized by fever, purulent phlegm and response to an antibiotic,” she says. If a disabling headache, nausea and sensitivity to light are present in addition to sinus symptoms such as facial pain or nasal and sinus congestion, she tells us that studies have shown those are often migraines with less commonly seen side effects. When it comes to triggers, sinus headaches can be brought on by seasonal changes or environmental allergies.

woman taking medicine
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How to Treat Headaches

Dr. Rossknecht says some of the headache types share similar short-term treatments. Over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen can help with tension headaches or migraines. Migraines also share courses of treatment with cluster headaches in the form of triptans, a class of medications used for the acute treatment of migraine and cluster headaches that comes in the form of tablets, nasal sprays and injectables. In terms of sinus headaches, if a patient truly has a sinus headache, that would be treated with antibiotics under the care of a physician. However, as noted above, sinus headaches are often migraines with associated allergy or sinus symptoms and can be treated with OTC nasal steroid sprays or nasal decongestants.

How to Prevent Headaches

“It’s always beneficial to take a holistic, natural, lifestyle approach first, if possible,” Dr. Rossknecht tells us. That means addressing sleep hygiene, stress levels, diet and exercise, and identifying headache triggers. “Other nonprescription options for prevention that can be helpful include acupuncture, meditation, neurofeedback and mindfulness therapy with a pain psychologist,” she adds. Ooh, guess it’s time to download the Headspace app.

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