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What are the different types of headaches?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Headaches are a common health issue that can be classified into different types based on their underlying causes. Understanding the types of headaches can help in determining appropriate treatment approaches. Primary headaches are those without an underlying cause, while secondary headaches are caused by other health problems or medications. Headaches can also be categorized as chronic or episodic depending on their frequency.

How are headaches categorized?

Headaches are broadly categorized into two main types: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are not associated with any underlying medical condition, while secondary headaches have an identifiable cause or trigger.

What Are The Types of Headaches?

Primary headaches encompass three main types:

  1. Migraine (including Aura & Menstrual Migraine): Migraines are typically characterized by severe, throbbing pain on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and sometimes visual disturbances.
  2. Tension Headaches: Tension headaches usually present as a dull, aching pain, often described as a tight band around the head. They can be caused by stress, muscle tension, or poor posture.
  3. Cluster Headaches: Cluster headaches are intense headaches that occur in cyclical patterns or clusters. They are characterized by excruciating pain around one eye or temple, accompanied by nasal congestion and eye redness.

Secondary headaches can be caused by various underlying conditions, including:

These are just a few examples, as secondary headaches can have numerous causes.

Can primary headaches be treated with painkillers?

Painkillers can be effective in managing primary headaches. For tension headaches, simple pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen (separate or in combination) are often helpful. Migraines may require specific medications like sumatriptan, which can be obtained from a pharmacy after consulting with a pharmacist. If over-the-counter painkillers do not provide sufficient relief for migraines or cluster headaches, alternative treatment approaches may be necessary.

Can secondary headaches be treated with painkillers?

Secondary headaches have an underlying cause, and treating the cause itself is usually the most effective way to alleviate the headache. However, in some cases, the underlying cause may be challenging to treat immediately, take time to resolve (e.g., infections), or be untreatable. Painkillers can be used to manage the headache symptoms while addressing the underlying cause.

When to see a doctor

It is advisable to consult a doctor if you experience any of the following headache symptoms:

  • Increased frequency of headaches
  • Increased severity of headaches
  • Headaches that do not improve with over-the-counter drugs
  • Headaches that interfere with daily activities, work, or sleep
  • Headaches causing distress and requiring better treatment options

Certain types of secondary headaches may require urgent medical attention, including headaches resulting from head injuries, sudden severe headaches (known as "Thunderclap Headaches"), headaches with symptoms of meningitis, and headaches with symptoms of a stroke.

It's essential to be aware of these rare but potentially serious types of headaches and seek medical help accordingly.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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