I’ve suffered from intense migraines since I was a teenager, and I get headaches almost daily. I’m thankful that in general I’m in good health, so I try not to complain, but for anyone who can relate, you know that migraines can put life on hold. As the years have gone by, I’ve gained more knowledge about headaches and migraines, and have learned my triggers and the differences between what I deal with and other types of headaches. As more research is being done on this topic, there are more solutions, yet there is still so much to learn. If you experience headaches, this information might be valuable to you so you can identify what’s going on and gain more insight on how to treat it.
5 Common Types of Headaches
To answer the simplest question, first: What is a headache? Mayo Clinic defines a headache as, “Pain in any region of the head. Headaches may occur on one or both sides of the head, be isolated to a certain location, radiate across the head from one point, or have a viselike quality.” Chances are you already know this, and you’ve had at least a couple of headaches in your life, even if they were minor. The thing that many people are not aware of is that not all headaches are alike, and they can stem from a variety of things.
Here’s a breakdown of the different types of headaches and how to identify them:
About three out of four adults get tension headaches. They’re one of the most common types. This type of headache can be triggered by issues with the muscles, joints of the neck and jaw, physical and/or emotional stress, fatigue, and lack of sleep. There are episodic and chronic tension headaches, the difference being their frequency. Chronic tension headaches are 15 or more days a month, for at least three months, whereas episodic headaches tend to last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week.
About three out of four adults get tension headaches, which are usually triggered by stress.
To identify this kind of headache, you'll notice a sensation of pressure and tightness banding across the forehead, on the sides, or the back of your head. This can even extend to your scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles. It will be a dull, aching pain brought on by stress.
Migraines are typically more severe than tension headaches, and are linked to neurological factors, but can have many different triggers. Harvard states, “Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in the brain's blood flow and nerve cell activity. Genetics play a role since 70% of migraine victims have at least one close relative with the problem.”
Some common triggers that bring on migraines are improper sleep, environmental factors (change of weather, heat, or humidity), emotional stress, light, loud noises, lack of nutrients or too much of certain types of food (caffeine, chocolate, aged cheese, etc.), and more. Hormones seem to also play a part in migraines, but it’s still unclear to what extent. Pregnancy can be protective against migraines (but can also cause migraines for some), and during a woman’s menstrual phase, migraines are common.
With migraines, there is usually an intense, throbbing pain on one side of the head (although it can sometimes be both), and movement and sound can make it worse. Other symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, feeling sweaty, hot or cold, vision issues, and dizziness. Migraines can last hours to days and are chronic for some people.
Another type of common headache is a sinus headache. They can occur due to dry weather, allergies, or illness, and cause the sinus cavity to become inflamed. Leaning forward can cause them to get worse, and sometimes they’re accompanied by infection and sickness like congestion, fever, and runny nose.
To identify a sinus headache, you might notice other symptoms as stated above, and the headache pain will be located around the nose and eyes, over the forehead and cheeks, or over the upper teeth.
Cluster headaches are not as common but are extremely painful. They tend to happen more in men than women. Specifically, middle-age men who have a history of smoking are the most common victims of cluster headaches, but anyone can get them. They are called cluster headaches because they come in clusters, with up to eight headaches a day in a three month period, usually at the same time of year.
They feel like a striking pain behind or around the eye, and can cause eye swelling or watery eyes. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a runny nose and nasal congestion, and a drooping eyelid. Since they’re less common, they’re more difficult to diagnose.
Hormonal headaches and migraines seem to be related in some ways, as it’s estimated that 60% of women who get regular migraines also have menstrual migraines. A hormonal headache is one that is linked to fluctuations in hormones, sometimes during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, and affecting those on some forms of birth control.
For example, if you get a headache or migraine right before your period, this could be because of the drop in estrogen, which can trigger a hormonal headache. Hormonal birth control can cause migraines and headaches because of the change in hormones.
How To Treat These 5 Kinds of Headaches
Once you know what type of headache you might be experiencing, the next step is treatment. As someone who suffers from regular migraines and headaches, I know it's not always an easy fix, and even if you find a treatment that works for you, you might have to adjust it as time goes on. Nevertheless, studies show that many of these treatments are successful in managing and/or lessening the severity of the symptoms.
Treatment for tension headaches is all about addressing the stress and muscle tension. This may involve creating some form of self-care routine like yoga, stretching, a warm compress, physical therapy, and managing your psychological stress. Over-the-counter medication such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen may also help.
Once a migraine attack happens, sometimes the best way to get relief is to get in a dark room without sound and to go to sleep. OTC medications can be taken but might not be effective if the migraine is already significant. There are several kinds of prescription medications that are used as treatment, such as triptans and ergotamine, and some people seek preventative treatment to help combat migraines before they start.
Peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil applied to the temples and forehead are effective migraine treatments for some.
A more natural approach to fighting migraines includes supplementation with certain compounds that can be found OTC or in food, and have been proven to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. They may also be effective in treating tension and hormonal headaches. One supplement is omega 3 fatty acids, which can be found in different kinds of fish or in fish oil. Peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil applied to the temples and forehead has also been an effective treatment for some to reduce the severity of their migraines.
Alternative methods include Botox treatment and acupuncture. The American Migraine Foundation states that “Botox enters the nerve endings around where it is injected and blocks the release of chemicals involved in pain transmission.” Studies are in clinical trials to show the positive effects of Botox for migraine treatment. Acupuncture seems to work by releasing hormones that stimulate the circulatory system to help decrease headache pain. Both of these treatments require regular upkeep.
Because a sinus headache is caused by inflammation of the sinus cavities, treatment will include resolving your sinus issues and reducing the inflammation.
Cleveland Clinic suggests the following things to help reduce the pain of a sinus headache:
Apply a warm compress to painful areas of the face.
Use a decongestant to reduce sinus swelling and allow mucus to drain.
Try a saline nasal spray or drops to thin mucus.
Use a vaporizer or inhale steam from a pan of boiled water. Warm, moist air may help relieve sinus congestion.
If you have a sinus infection, or have a sinus headache associated with other illnesses such as a cold or allergies, you might require additional treatment such as steroids, pain relievers, decongestants, or antihistamines.
While there is no cure for cluster headaches, the goal of treatment is to lessen the severity of the attack. Some people might need medical attention and be given a high dose of oxygen therapy through a face mask for around 20 minutes. A doctor can also prescribe sumatriptan, a nasal spray that will help relieve some of the pain.
Hormonal headaches are linked to other forms of headaches because hormone imbalance can be a trigger for them. Therefore, treatment can include that of other types of headaches such as migraines. OTC pain relievers can be taken, or natural remedies such as omega 3 fatty acids and magnesium. It might also be beneficial to take vitamins, as a vitamin deficiency can trigger headaches. Balancing your hormones might just be the key to managing hormonal headaches. Eating and exercising according to your cycle can help with this.
Though we know more now than ever about headaches, there is still so much research to be done. Thankfully, just identifying what kind of headache you’re experiencing can lead you to the right form of treatment and allow you to get the relief you need.
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