Home » Understanding the Different Types of Headaches: Causes and Symptoms

Understanding the Different Types of Headaches: Causes and Symptoms

Headache symptoms depend on the type of headache. The frequency of headaches and the intensity of the symptoms may vary, too.
Headache symptoms depend on the type of headache. The frequency of headaches and the intensity of the symptoms may vary, too.



A headache is characterized by facial or head pain. The location, level of intensity, and frequency of headaches vary widely from one another. The brain tissue is pain-free and lacks pain-sensitive nerve fibers.

But other parts of the head can be responsible for a headache, including:

1) A network of nerves that extends over the scalp

2) Certain nerves in the face, mouth, and throat

3) Muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders

4) Blood vessels are found along the surface and at the base of the brain.


  • Migraine

Other than just pain, this kind of headache also has other symptoms. With migraines, common symptoms include lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting, photophobia (sensitivity to light), and other visual problems. There are also distinct phases to migraines. Not everyone experiences every stage, though. The following are possible phases of a migraine headache:

-Premonition or prodromal phase- A change in mood or behavior may occur hours or days before the headache.

-Aura phase. A group of visual, sensory, or motor symptoms can precede the headache. Examples include vision changes, hallucinations, numbness, changes in speech, and muscle weakness.

-Headache phase. Period during the actual headache with throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Sensitivity to light and motion are common, as are depression, fatigue, and anxiety.

-Resolution phase. Pain lessens during this phase but may be replaced with fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating. Some people feel refreshed after an attack, others do not.

  • Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Stress and tight muscles are often factors in tension-type headaches. These are common symptoms of a tension-type headache:

1) Slow onset of the headache

2) The head usually hurts on both sides

3) Pain is dull or feels like a band or vice around the head

4) Pain may involve the back part of the head or neck

5) Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe

6) Tension-type headaches typically do not cause nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light (photophobia).

  • Cluster headaches

These are the most common symptoms of a cluster headache. Cluster headaches usually occur in a series that may last weeks or months. These are the most common symptoms of a cluster headache:

1) Severe pain on one side of the head, usually behind one eye

2) The eye that is affected may be red and watery with a droopy lid and small pupil

3) Swelling of the eyelid

4) Runny nose or congestion

5) Swelling of the forehead

What kinds of headaches are there?

Over 150 different kinds of headaches exist. Primary and secondary headaches are the two main categories into which they fall.

  • Primary Headache 

Primary headaches are caused by malfunctioning or overactive pain-sensitive features in the head. They are not brought on by or a sign of any underlying medical issues. Some individuals may be genetically predisposed to primary headaches.

Primary headache types include-

– Tension-type headaches are the most prevalent kind.

– Headaches from migraines. 

– Cluster headaches.

– New daily headaches that don’t go away (NDPH).


Alcohol, especially red wine, is one lifestyle factor or situation that can cause some primary headaches.

Some foods, like processed meats with added nitrates (which cause food-induced headaches),

Nicotine consumption can also cause headaches (nicotine headaches).

Sleep patterns shifting or ceasing to sleep

Poor posture.

  • Exertion headaches

    (Exercise and other physical activities)

-Skipped meals due to a headache of hunger.

-Primary cough headaches can be caused by coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, straining (like during a bowel movement), shedding tears, or laughing uncontrollably.

-Although they can be extremely painful and interfere with daily activities, primary headaches are usually not dangerous.

  • Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are brought on by an underlying medical condition. They are regarded as an indication or symptom of a disease.

Some secondary headache types that go away after the underlying condition is treated and aren’t always harmful are:

-Headache from dehydration.

-Headaches from the sinuses.

-Headaches from excessive drug use.

The following types of secondary headaches may indicate a serious or possibly fatal illness:

  • Spinal headaches: 

Usually following a spinal tap, spinal headaches are severe headaches caused by spinal fluid seeping out of the membrane encasing your spinal cord. The majority of spinal headaches are manageable at home, but if left untreated for an extended period, they can result in potentially fatal consequences like seizures and subdural hematoma.

Headaches that strike suddenly and with great pain, akin to a thunderclap, are known as thunderclap headaches. This kind of headache lasts for at least five minutes and reaches its peak pain in just one minute. Even though thunderclap headaches are occasionally benign, getting medical help right away is crucial. They may indicate:

1) Brain trauma.

2) Bruised brain.

3) Reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome.

4) An abrupt and extreme increase in blood pressure.


Headache symptoms depend on the type of headache. The frequency of headaches and the intensity of the symptoms may vary, too. Typical headache symptoms include:

1) Slow onset of the headache.

2) The head usually hurts on both sides.

3) Pain is dull or feels like a band or vice around the head.

4) Pain may involve the back part of the head or neck.

5) Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe.

Tension-type headaches typically do not cause nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light (photophobia).

The symptoms of a headache may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.


Physicians gather a patient’s medical history and perform a thorough neurological examination to determine the cause of headaches and rule out any underlying medical conditions. Diagnostic testing may include the following imaging tests:


Computed tomography (CT) scanning creates multiple images or pictures of the interior of the body by utilizing advanced computers and specialized X-ray equipment. A CT scan of the brain is used by doctors to identify bleeding that results from strokes, aneurysm ruptures or leaks, brain tumors, and diseases or abnormalities of the skull. CTA, or CT angiography, might be used. During a CT scan, images of the brain’s blood vessels are obtained by injecting a contrast material intravenously.




MRI makes it simple to diagnose a congenital ailment.
MRI makes it simple to diagnose a congenital ailment.

An intense magnetic field, radio frequency pulses, and a computer are used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to create finely detailed images of bone, soft tissues, organs, and almost all other internal body structures. Brain MRIs are used by doctors to investigate the structure of the brain and help diagnose conditions such as tumors, abnormalities in development, blood vessel issues (like aneurysms), diseases of the pituitary gland, stroke, and some chronic nervous system disorders like multiple sclerosis. MRI makes it simple to diagnose a congenital ailment known as a Chiari malformation, which can cause headaches.

LUMBAR PUNCTURE (also called a spinal tap): 

This diagnostic test involves removing and analyzing a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid—the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord — from the lumbar (or lower) region of the spinal column. Physicians use a lumbar puncture to help diagnose infections, including meningitis (infection of the membranes covering the brain) and encephalitis (infection of the brain itself), inflammatory conditions of the nervous system, including Guillain-Barre Syndrome and multiple sclerosis, bleeding around the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage), and cancers involving the brain and spinal cord.


If your doctor suspects you may have an aneurysm, you may undergo CT Angiography. Individuals experiencing acute, severe headaches may also experience secondary headaches. When neurological deficits are absent, standard head CT and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) examination are frequently carried out to rule out subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH).

How are headaches treated?

Relatively straightforward treatment options can be considered, so long as none of the serious conditions mentioned above are present. Physicians may try to identify headache (particularly migraine) “triggers,” such as stress or certain foods, and recommend treatment options such as the following to treat symptoms and prevent the frequency and severity of headaches:

Preventive medications and treatments.

Lifestyle changes, including stress management and relaxation techniques.

Pain-relieving medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Children and adolescents should avoid taking aspirin. In rare cases, aspirin can cause Reye Syndrome, a serious and potentially fatal condition.


Knowing what to eat when your head hurts can help you make good choices. The most common foods and drinks that have been reported to help headaches include:

Leafy greens

Fresh fruits, especially brightly colored ones, are high in antioxidants

Low-sodium foods


A small cup of coffee for a caffeine headache

Avoid consuming processed foods, aged cheeses, smoked or dried fish, cultured dairy products, high sodium foods like potato chips and foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. Sometimes, headache relief comes from knowing what not to eat.

Be careful about drinks, too!

Some drinks have been linked to headaches.

Dairy products:

Casein, a class of phosphoproteins found in milk, accounts for 78.7% of the protein in milk. Some people experience headaches other than milk migraines and headaches caused by casein. Headaches have been linked to milk, milk-based beverages, and buttermilk. To illustrate how complicated headaches can be, some people use whole milk, which contains protein and electrolytes, to treat headaches, including migraines.

Alcohol – 

Mixed drinks, such as beer, wine, and champagne, have alcohol in them. Alcohol impacts brain chemicals and blood vessels in a way that may cause a pounding headache. Drinking alcohol and not drinking adequate water multiplies the effects.

Red and white wines have alcohol, tannins, and sugar, creating a perfect mix for triggering headaches. Like other alcoholic drinks, champagne can also cause dehydration by suppressing the hormones that balance the body’s hydration, but the carbonation can make headaches even more painful. Carbon dioxide in carbonation competes with the oxygen in the bloodstream, causing a host of symptoms that include dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

Caffeinated drinks – 

Caffeine is in more drinks than many people realize. It is commonly known to be in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks. However, it is also in chocolate, hot cocoa is a potential headache trigger. If prone to migraines, a cup of hot chocolate made with milk should be avoided. Not generally known is that caffeine is also found in foods, like ice cream and breakfast cereals. Drink several cups of coffee while eating cereal for breakfast, and the caffeine dose is significant.

Water – 

Water is good for headaches! Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, one of the top causes of headaches. Drinking water is sometimes all it takes to relieve a headache.


Following are a few of the most asked questions, that you too may have.

What is a migraine trigger?

Anything that causes a migraine regularly is a trigger. Alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, and meal skipping are typical triggers. Both smell and food triggers affect a lot of people. However, each person is unique. While someone with the same type of headache can eat chocolate until they weigh three hundred pounds without experiencing a headache, someone else with the same type of headache cannot pass a candy counter without experiencing a headache. It is preferable to be aware of the circumstances surrounding your headaches and take appropriate action when you notice a pattern rather than making a list of everything that has ever caused someone to get a headache.

Are migraines dangerous?

They are not, for the most part. There is a slight increase in the risk for stroke in certain types of headaches; these include complicated migraine, hemiplegic migraine, basilar migraine, and, to a lesser extent, classic migraine. Rather than during a single headache, the statistical risk is based on a patient’s lifetime chance of stroke. Patients with migraineurs who also have other stroke risk factors, such as high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, low homocysteine levels, etc., should talk to their physicians about appropriate medication and lifestyle modifications.

What is a trigger?

A migraine may be “triggered” or brought on by several environmental or physiological variables, including food, stress, weather, and hormonal fluctuations. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that each person has unique triggers. Therefore, you need to determine which triggers affect you and which ones don’t to help prevent migraine attacks. Maintaining a headache journal will assist you in discussing your condition with your healthcare provider and is a useful tool for tracking triggers.