Health / Expert Advice

Find Out What Your Headache Is Trying to Tell You

Not all headaches are created equal.

None of us are exempt from the dreaded headache. The pain—which can feel like sharp pains or dull aches—can be annoying or point to a more serious problem. All kinds of things can trigger headaches. Some are brought on by stress, others can be a result of dehydration, and still, others may be a result of genetics. Because there are several types, it’s important to identify what type of headache you’re experiencing in order to get the right treatment. Read on to learn more about the four most common types of headaches and how to properly treat each.

If you feel it in a band around your head or neck…

Infamous for their constant ache or feeling of pressure, tension headaches are the most common headache type. They are often brought on by stress or lack of sleep. This type of headache affects 80 to 90 percent of people at some point in their lifetime. “Tension headaches typically feel like a tightness or a band around the head or neck, occasionally with a feeling of tenderness in the head muscles, neck, or shoulders,” says Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, Emergency Physician, Head of Clinical Strategy at Sharecare, and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. Luckily, they’re not accompanied by any other symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting.

They’re also usually not painful enough to interfere with your day-to-day life. If it isn’t too distracting, feel free to treat it and go on with your life. “Exercise, stress reduction, and over the counter pain relievers should relieve the pain,” says Dr. Constantine George, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Epitomedical, and founder of the healthcare app Vēdius.

If you’re experiencing a dull throb and nausea…

You may have a migraine. Migraines can be identified by a number of triggers and reactions. Most often the pain in your head is met with nausea, vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and throbbing in one localized area. “Migraine headaches typically have pain that begins slowly and is dull, but can feel like it’s throbbing,” says Dr. Long Gillespie. “Unlike tension headaches, which feel like a band, in migraine headaches, the pain is often just on one side of the head. Some patients will also complain of an aura which can include seeing flashing lights, or [feeling] funny tingling and numbness in the face or head.”

Migraines can be brought on by several varying factors. These include hormonal changes, stress, exercise, genetics, certain foods and drinks, and even the weather. Those who get them often usually become aware of their personal triggers and reactions. To treat migraines, Dr. George recommends seeing your doctor to find out how to treat your individual situation. Your treatment will likely involve staying away from light and noise for a few hours until your migraine subsides. In some cases, though, more intensive treatment might be necessary.

If you tend to get them in batches…

The only thing worse than a headache is a series of headaches. “Cluster headaches can be extremely severe,” says Dr. Long Gillespie. “They tend to occur in repeated batches, meaning you’ll have several for a week, then none for a while.” These headaches become severe in only minutes. They typically feel like a stabbing, burning, or piercing pain that often takes place on one side of the head. “Swelling, redness, flushing, and sweating can all be seen as symptoms,” adds Dr. George.

The best option for treatment in the case of cluster headaches is to visit your doctor and come up with a specific plan to prevent and treat the pain. Acute treatment may include inhaling 100 percent oxygen or injecting medications, such as triptans, octreotide, or dihydroergotamine.

If you also have a stuffy nose or aching jaw…

If your headache is joined by flu-like symptoms and aching portions of the face, chances are you have a sinus headache. “Sinus headaches are usually caused by sinus infections, inflammation, or allergies,” says Dr. George. “Symptoms include stuffy nose, fatigue, achy feeling in the upper jaw or teeth, and pain of the forehead, brows, or cheeks.”

Pay special attention to your symptoms if you think you have a sinus headache because many actually take form as migraines or tension headaches. Luckily, this means that you can treat it similarly, depending on which one it is. Staying away from known allergens, taking over-the-counter pain medicine, and prescription medication can also help in easing the pain.

Prevent Common Headaches

While you can’t always prevent certain headaches, there are simple steps you can take to hold others at bay. “Nutritionally, the biggest contributing factors to headaches are dehydration and low blood sugar,” says Nutritionist Sarah Goldstein. “Drinking adequate water and finding a way to include liquid throughout your day is important. Balanced meals should be full of fiber, healthy fat, and protein, and limited in sugar.”

Goldstein also lists proper sleep, stress management, and good posture as lifestyle factors that can contribute to headache prevention or relief.

As always, if you find you’re in serious pain or cannot treat your headache, please visit your doctor for proper treatment.

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