Types of Headache


Headaches are something that afflicts almost every other person today on a regular basis. This is one of the most common complaints and is not very easy to ignore as they are capable of bringing work to a standstill. Several pain sensitive areas such as the muscles, nerves and blood vessels are located around the brain and when these structures are disturbed, headaches are caused. There are several different types of headaches caused due to various reasons. Headaches also serve as symptoms of other ailments of the head and neck.

The various symptoms of the different types of headaches should be paid careful attention to in order to aid in its effective treatment. The treatment varies from one type to another, from over the counter drugs for the tension related headaches to one that requires serious consultation as in the case of chronic headaches.

Classification of Headaches

Types of HeadacheA thorough classification of headaches is brought out by the International Headache Society in their International Classification of Headache Disorders. Broadly, headaches are classified as primary and secondary headaches.

  • Primary Headache: This type of headache is not caused by any underlying condition of the body and is the more common of the two. Migraine falls under this category so does the tension type headaches and cluster headaches.
  • Secondary Headaches: The headaches falling under this type are classified on the basis of the causal factor and not just the symptoms. Certain underlying conditions and diseases of the body trigger this type of headache. Stroke, cranial bleeding, meningitis, enchaphalitis and brain tumor are some of the more common causes of secondary headache.
  • Other Headaches: This includes rebound headache, hormonal headache, organic headache,  Cranial Neuralgias and Facial Pain.  

Another general classification for the different types of headache are:

  • Acute Headaches: This type of headache is something a person experiences for the first time without any prior experiences of the same kind. Certain conditions that might give rise to this type of headache include meningitis, encephalitis, concussions, glaucoma, stroke, seizures and certain ear and sinus infections.
  • Subacute Headaches: Headaches under this type may persist for long and occur over an extended period. Temporal arthritis, hypertension and the different types of neuralgia may be some of the possible causes.
  • Chronic Headaches: These are the headaches that persist for years together, but are not necessarily life threatening. Migraines and tension type headaches fall under this category.

Types Under Primary Headache

The most common under this type include cluster headaches, migraine & tension type headaches,

  • Tension Type Headaches: This is the most common type of headache and is mainly caused due to stress. Over 90 per cent of adults have suffered this form of headache at some point in their life. They can be very severe and steady, but are temporary and may recur. Tension headaches are further divided into two types. One, Episodic Tension Headache where the pain is felt at least for 14-15 days in a month and two, the Chronic type that occurs almost every day. Women are more likely to suffer from this type of headache compared to males.
  • Migraine: Another more common type of vascular headache, migraines are characterized by pulsating pain on one side of the head, sometimes on both the sides, nausea and vomiting. Migraines are usually associated with aura where the person experiences altered visual perception prior to the onset of intense pain. Migraines also occur without being accompanied by aura. The severity of pain is great and a doctor has to be consulted to help in the treatment process when the frequency and severity of the pain attacks increase. Migraines also seem to afflict women more compared to men.
  • Cluster Headaches:  This is another type of vascular headache where the pain is extremely acute and excruciating, affecting one side of the brain and tends to occur periodically. This is the severest form of primary headache and is usually centered around the eye. Nasal congestion, teary and droopy eyes are some of the symptoms of this type of headache. The onset is rapid and there are no preliminary signs or symptoms as is the case in migraine. Cluster headaches tend to affect men more often than women. Cluster headaches are also classified as episodic and chronic. The cause for this type of headache is still unknown but genetic role is not ruled out.

Usually Primary Headaches are treated by over the counter drugs and are not taken too seriously by most people since they are not life threatening.

Secondary Headache

As mentioned earlier, the types of headaches in this group are categorized based on the causal factors. These headaches are usually symptomatic of certain ailments of the body and underlying conditions that may be life threatening or that are capable of causing long term damage.

Secondary headaches may be caused due to a variety of conditions that include glaucoma, strokes, meningitis, encephalitis and neuralgia. Headaches may be caused when the pressure inside the cranial cavity increases due to brain tumors and intracranial hypertension.

Certain types of headaches may be the only or prominent symptoms of certain conditions such as the ‘Thunderclap’ headache being the sole symptom of subarachnoid hemorrhage where there is blood accumulation around the brain.

Other Headaches

The ones that do not fit into the primary and secondary types are categorized here.

  • Rebound Headache: This type of headache is usually associated with over use of prescribed medications or general overuse. When medicine intake is not in accordance to what is prescribed by the physician, this type of headache may be caused.
  • Sinus: Sinuses are found in many areas of the face and when they get inflamed or are blocked headaches may be caused.
  • Organic Headache: This type of headache is caused due to certain abnormalities in the skull or brain. These are most commonly caused due to conditions such as meningitis, brain tumor, aneurysm, cerebral hemorrhaging or encephalitis.
  • Menstrual or Hormonal Migraine: This is mainly caused due to the hormonal changes, especially estrogen and progesterone, in menstruating women. Women who are on oral contraceptives also are affected by this type of headache as oral contraceptive pills alter the estrogen and progesterone levels.
  • Cranial Neuralgias and Facial Pain: This is caused due to the inflammation of the nerves in the head as well as the upper neck.  This is a variant of normal migraine and is characterized by short, sharp pain in the face.

Symptoms that need to be carefully attended to:

To address the problem in a precise manner and to make the treatment process more effective it is necessary to note the symptoms in a clear manner. The following points should be noted carefully to assist in the process of treating the pain.

  • The exact location of the pain
  • The frequency of the pain
  • The severity and duration of the pain
  • Character of the pain, whether the pain is sharp, dull or throbbing
  • Reason for its aggravation

The different type of headaches has their own set of causal agents, symptoms as well as treatment process. Treating headaches greatly depend upon the type of headache experienced by the person. Most headaches respond to analgesics while the chronic headaches require more care and attention. Cluster and Migraine headaches have their own set of drugs. Aspirin and Ibuprofen are the most common over the counter drugs to treat headaches. Stronger doses such as Meloxicam, Piroxicam, Nabumetone and Ketoprofen are available only on prescription by a physician.


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