Headaches - Types and Symptoms

Headaches - Types and Symptoms
Published : Feb 04, 2024
Last Updated : Feb 06, 2024

Headache is a common problem that most people face. They cause you headaches and make you uncomfortable. Some of its types are very concerning; they can be easily managed with pain management strategies. And, sometimes, you can use over-the-counter medications to relieve them. Headaches are of many types but are categorized into primary and secondary. 

In this article, we will discuss primary and secondary headaches. Also, we have to decide each of them from the category. Also, you will explore the symptoms and causes of these headaches and their treatments. 

This information will clarify what to do if you have the following headaches. Whether you should use an over-the-counter drug to get relief or ask a doctor for help, read on for more information. 

The Two Main Categories of Headaches

Headaches are generally classified into two main categories. 

While their symptoms can be equally painful, the difference between these headaches is due to their causes. 

Primary headache: 

These kinds of headaches take origin in themselves, and another underlying cause does not cause them. Almost 90% of headache cases are primary headaches. These primary headaches begin due to the head's blood vessels, nerves, neck, and facial muscles. Triggers likely to induce primary headaches include stress, diet, alcohol changes in sleep habits, etc. 

Secondary headache: 

Another underlying condition can lead to secondary headaches in the body. It means it's a symptom of something else that may require medical attention. The cause of this kind of headache may range from the overuse of medication or caffeine to a withdrawal symptom of something more serious. Also, an infection, blood clot, or brain tumor may lead to headaches. 

Types of Primary Headaches

Primary headaches occur on their own, meaning that they are not a result of another underlying health condition. These kinds of headaches may be a one-time occurrence or can be chronic. It means it may appear either once or often over a long period. Here, we have defined the most common types of Primary headaches-

Tension headaches

It is one of the most common types of headaches that people usually experience. As a rough estimate, 80 to 90% of the population suffer from tension headaches at least some time in their lives. 


Migraine is the second most prevalent type of primary headache. According to estimated data, more than 10% of people are affected by Migraines. It often occurs in people aged 20 to 50 years and is about 3 times more common in women than men. 

Cluster headaches

It is a rare and more painful type of headache if compared to tension headaches or migraines. Just one in every 1,000 adults in the United States suffers cluster headaches. These headaches are short-lived and may last for some minutes to hours. But you may have multiple episodes of cluster headaches in a day, and their periods can last for weeks or months. After that, there is usually a break with no headaches for months or years.

You may have most attacks at the same time of the day. These attacks may appear at night for a while after you fall asleep. And it may occur around the same time of year. 

Exertional or exercise headaches

An exertional or exercise headache happens when you do physical activities. These activities can put pressure on your chest or tense your abdominal muscles. It may result in heavy exertion like running or from something as insignificant as coughing.

Hypnic headaches

It is a super-rare sleep-related primary headache that may occur in people over 50. It is also known as an alarm clock headache because it only happens during sleep and can wake you up. In the year 2010, doctors reported only 200 cases of hypic headaches.

Symptoms of Primary Headaches

The primary symptom of a headache is pain in any part of your head. It may appear as a sharp pain, a tight or squeezing feeling, a constant throbbing feeling, or a dull ache. You can differentiate between types of primary headaches by the following symptoms they include-

  • Tension headaches causes constant pressure or pain that you can feel on both sides of your head.
  • Migraines may feel pulsating or throbbing pain on one side of your head during a migraine. This pain can last for hours or even days. The severe pain due to migraines can inhibit your daily activities. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light or sound, which is common in this type of headache. 
  • Cluster headaches is painful enough to wake you up from sleep. It causes intense pain on one side of the head, often behind or around one eye. You may have a lot of tears or redness in your eye, and your eye may droop on the same side you have the pain. Also, On the affected side, one nostril may have congestion or a drippy feeling in the nose.
  • Exceptional or exercise  headaches happen fast and often begin after exercising but can also appear later. They can last a few seconds to several minutes, and with repeated exertion, the intensity may build and last longer. If your headache comes on slowly and long after activity, it might be a tension headache. That may appear due to muscle tension or dehydration.
  • Hypnic headaches occur consistently, especially at night, usually between 1-3 am. In some rare cases, these headaches may appear during daytime naps. The throbbing pain begins abruptly and can last from minutes to a few hours. The pain usually feels at the front of the head, but you may feel it on the side or at the entire head.

Causes of Primary Headaches

Many conditions can contribute to tension headaches. These triggers include-

  • Stress
  • Eye strain
  • Poor posture
  • Changes in diet
  • Dehydration
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Lack of sleep or poor sleep, leading to sleep apnea or teeth grinding or snoring

We don't know the exact cause of migraines, but changes in the brain and chemical imbalances in the brain are likely to contribute to migraines. The common triggers can be stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, and menstruation, but the cause of it can vary from person to person. Most people who deal with migraines learn to reconcile their symptoms and triggers. And also get to know that they can bring relief to their migraine.

The exact cause of cluster headaches is unknown. However, its patterns suggest abnormalities in the body's biological clock can contribute to its onset. Cluster headaches are quite different from migraines and tension headaches. They don't usually have triggers like hormones, stress, or diet. But, once a cluster period begins, drinking alcohol can trigger more intense pain in people.

Such headaches can happen when you strain during bowel movements, exercise, lift heavy things, cough, sneeze, or have sex. The cause is usually unknown but linked to increased brain pressure. 

The cause of hypnic headache is unclear; however, factors that may contribute include-

  • Hypertension
  • Nighttime hypertension
  • Sleep apnea
  • Increase pressure in the brain during lying position
  • Poor breathing during sleep
  • Primary Headache Treatments

Over-the-counter medications are often used to get relief from tension headaches. Drinking liquids may help in treating headaches if they are induced by dehydration. Getting relief, you may get enough sleep, balanced nutrition, massages, or other things that help reduce stress.

Many medications are specifically designed to treat migraines. Some require a doctor's prescription, and some are available over the counter. 

Migraine medications are of two types: ones that relieve the pain of migraines and others that help prevent migraines from occurring. Pain relievers, either OTC or prescription, may help stop the symptoms during a migraine attack. Preventive medications are usually prescribed when the frequency of migraines is high. Your doctor may advise you to take them daily to help reduce the frequency and severity of the migraine attacks.

Although cluster headaches have no cure, some medications and treatments can effectively stop and prevent their episodes. You must consult a doctor to deal with these severe and debilitating headaches. Discuss a suitable treatment plan.

You can prevent exertional headaches by having a short warm-up before exertion. Also, you may avoid the specific exercises or movements that may trigger the pain. These kinds of headaches primarily respond to OTC or prescription anti-inflammatory drugs.

Hypnic headaches are painful but benign, and lithium carbonate-like medication may help treat these headaches. But it has many side effects, and the other treatments include dosing caffeine and indomethacin during bedtime. Talking to a doctor to find the best treatment would be best.

Types of Secondary Headaches

These are the most common types of secondary headaches-

Post-traumatic headache

These kinds of headaches begin within seven days of a head injury. If the pain appears severe, the trauma is serious, or you lose consciousness, you need medical help immediately. You must visit a doctor even if the symptoms are mild. These types of symptoms can last for a few months.

Headaches from pain medication overuse

Overuse of certain pain medications can develop chronic headaches. The condition may appear if you mainly take them more than 2-3 days per week. 

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches are common, but if they last longer than a week, they might have a sinus infection or sinusitis. The pain during a sinus headache occurs due to pressure or congestion in your sinus cavities. 

How to differentiate a sinus headache from a migraine

Sinus headaches have symptoms like pressure, congestion, and facial pain. These symptoms can also appear with migraines or cluster headaches. It's a fact that many people get sinus headaches with migraines. You are more likely to have a sinus cavity, and your sinus pain worsens when you lean forward. Or it may get worse when you have bad breath or runny nose-like symptoms. 

Symptoms of Secondary Headaches

Post-traumatic headache

The symptoms associated with post-traumatic headaches include-

  • Lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Vertigo
  • Tiring quickly
  • A dull ache that gets worse gradually

Headaches from pain medication overuse

The overuse of pain medications causing headaches can induce symptoms such as

Chronic headaches, appearing daily, usually felt upon waking

Symptoms can vary but may include nausea, difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, and memory loss. 

You may have improvement with pain relief drugs, but pain comes back when you stop medication use.

Sinus headaches

You may feel pain or sinus headache in your cheeks and forehead. Congestion in your sinuses can cause a stuffy or runny nose. 

Causes of Secondary Headaches

As you have read above, primary headaches occur in isolation. However, secondary headaches are signs of an underlying condition. Many conditions may lead to secondary headaches, such as 

  • Overuse of medications
  • Head injury such as a concussion
  • Sinus infection
  • High blood pressure problem
  • Bleeding in brain
  • Brain tumor
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Pregnancy-related

If you have these conditions, then you are likely to face these types of secondary headaches-

Post-traumatic headache: As included above, these headaches can appear after a traumatic head or brain injury. Although its cause is not confirmed, studies show that these headaches may appear due to the release of certain chemicals, brain swelling, or brain shrinkage due to accidents.

Sinus headaches: These headaches appear due to pressure built up in the sinus cavities due to congestion. 

Secondary Headache Treatment

  • Short-term treatment for post-traumatic headaches includes pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. If the headache persists, a doctor may prescribe you preventive medications. These drugs include blood pressure pills, anti-seizure, or antidepressant medications. 
  • For long-term sufferers of post-traumatic headaches, non-drug treatments may help. It may include biofeedback, physical therapy, relaxation therapy, nerve stimulators, or cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • The first and most important step to treat headaches from pain medication overuse is to stop overusing that medication. After stopping that drug, you may have a period of worsened headaches, so make sure to do it under a doctor's care. 
  • To reduce the pain, drink water, rest, and talk with your doctor about gradually lowering your medicine dose. You can also ask about your alternatives to pain medications, such as talk therapy, biofeedback, and targeted physical therapy.
  • If you have faced a sinus headache for less than a week, OTC drugs and generous hydration can help relieve the pain. However, if it lasts for a week or longer, then there can be chances that you have developed a bacterial sinus infection. And you should consult a doctor, and If it's a sinus infection, your doctor may prescribe you antibiotics. 

When to See a Doctor for Your Headache Pain

To relieve the pain of any primary headaches, drink fluids, rest, or take OTC medications like Tylenol or Advil. If these treatments do not work for you and headaches occur more than once a week, you must speak to a doctor. Or, If you have your first headache, especially if you're under five or over 50, or if your chronic headaches change, it would be best to see a doctor.

Here are some conditions in which you must immediately seek medical attention:

  • If it's the worst headache you've ever had
  • Fainting or experiencing seizures
  • Rapid, sudden pain with a "thunderclap" sensation

Also, see a doctor soon if you are feeling confused or have neurological symptoms such as

  • Change in vision(Burry or double vision)
  • Difficulty speaking or walking
  • Loss of motor skills
  • Sudden eye pain, eye swelling, or tears in your eyes
  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling sensation on the one side of your body.
  • Loss of balance

Most Headaches are common. Identifying high-risk symptoms is essential to determine whether it's a primary or a secondary headache. 

You must see a doctor to determine if your headache is just a common one or something serious. Learn to recognize the accompanying symptoms and take steps to manage them.