What are the different types of headaches?

Headaches can be described in several different ways, but typically they are classified as cluster, tension or migraine headaches. The headache types differ in their location, duration, severity, precipitating factors and associated symptoms. The treatment for the different types can be similar, but classification can assist the physician in tailoring treatment specifically for each patient.

There is no special test to diagnosis what kind of headache you are getting- it all comes down to your symptoms. Tension type headaches (TTH) are usually described as a bilateral pressure and the pain is mild to moderate. Patients with TTH can sometimes have mild loss of appetite and some light sensitivity. While bothersome, people are usually able to go about their day while suffering from a TTH. These headaches can last from 15 minutes to a week and build up gradually. Tension type headaches are the most prevalent primary headache type.

Migraine headaches feel very different than TTH. Migraines are unilateral (or one sided) throbbing pain that is severe. They are accompanied by light and sound sensitivity or nausea with or without vomiting. Additionally, if you have a migraine headache you generally are not able to go about your day. This is the case both because the pain is too severe but also because activities of daily living make the headache worse. Migraine headaches can last from 3 hours to three days.

Several types of headaches exist, and each type is classified by specific symptoms. Headaches are very common, with 90 percent of adults experiencing some type of headache pain.

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache; about 3 in 4 adults experience these headaches. More women than men have tension-type headaches. The identifying characteristics of these headaches include mild-to-moderate, steady, pressing pain, and pain emanating from both sides of the head. The pain may last from a few hours to several days and is usually treated by self-care approaches or nonprescription (over-the-counter) medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil).

People who suffer from migraine headaches usually seek medical attention; about 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men suffer from migraines. Migraine pain is characterized as a moderate-to-severe, pulsating, throbbing pain often focused on one side of the head. This pain is intensified by simple physical activity. Migraine pain can be managed by a combination of nonprescription and prescription medications and self-care approaches and by avoiding triggers that set off migraine attacks.

Cluster headaches are rare. They occur in less than 1 percent of the population, and most cluster headache sufferers are men. Cluster headaches include these symptoms: extremely severe one-sided pain around an eye; pain that lasts from 15 minutes to 3 hours; headaches recur with a frequency ranging from once every other day to 8 times per day. Additional symptoms are typical in cluster headache attacks. Doctors prescribe a variety of prescription medications for treating and preventing cluster headaches.

Steven A. Meyers, MD
Diagnostic Radiology
There are many types of headaches. Headaches are classified as either primary or secondary. Secondary headaches are due to an identifiable cause such as an infection, brain tumor, or some other specific medical condition. Primary headaches do not have an identifiable cause and include migraine, tension type headache, cluster headache, and a variety of much less common conditions.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
There are three major types of headaches. Learn more about them in this video by Dr. Oz.

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Headaches can come in lots of forms, and knowing which kind you have will help you stop it and prevent it from happening again. The first thing to do is make sure you don't have a secondary headache. That is, a headache that's not the problem itself, but rather a side effect of some other health problem, like severely high blood pressure, infection, stroke, sinus problems, tempomandibular joint problems, hole in your heart, brain tumor or an aneurysm. It can be helpful to have a doc figure out the cause, but you can assist big time by identifying the triggers of your headache. Keep a log that has the date, time, and what you did and ate for the immediate preceding 48 hours (and if you're a woman, what time in your cycle it occurred). If you can find out what committed the crime, then you can execute the cause/culprit before it attacks again. The three most common primary headaches are migraine, tension and cluster.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.