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5 types of headache pain and ways to treat it

Over 45 million Americans (about one in six) suffer from chronic headaches. But, could a majority of these people be treating their headaches all wrong? 

“Far too often, people reach straight for the aspirin when they feel a headache coming on,” said neurologist and headache specialist with Nashville Medical Group at Baptist Hospital, Dr. Kita Morgan Williams. “But, aspirin may not always be the best answer. In fact, the overuse of pain reliever could actually be the cause of your headaches. This is just one of the many reasons it is so important to first identify the type of headache you are having before you try to treat it.” 

Dr. Williams recommends the following guide to help you put a name to the headache pain you are experiencing and find ways to appropriately treat it. 

  • Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, occurring daily for some people. Though painful, these types of headaches don’t usually interfere with normal functioning or become debilitating. 

Tension headaches can be brought on by a number of things, including stress, contraction of the head and neck muscles or chemical changes in the brain. 

The level of discomfort is generally mild to moderate and the pain is commonly described as a dull and constant pressing or squeezing on the front, back or both sides of the head. Some say it feels like a tight band is wrapped around their head. 

Treatment options for tension headaches over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.). 

  • Migraine Headaches

Migraines are the second most common type of headache, affecting around 28 million Americans. A person is 70 percent more likely to get them if both of their parents have them and three out of four migraine sufferers are women.

 These headaches consist of a severe, throbbing pain, typically on one side of the head, lasting anywhere from four to 72 hours. Migraine headaches can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and sensitivity to sound and light. 

Migraine triggers can include stress, depression, hormonal changes in women, changes in sleep patterns, sensory stimuli such as bright lights, loud sounds or unusual smells, changes in the weather, medications such as oral contraceptives and nitroglycerin and some foods, such as alcohol, aged cheeses, chocolate and overuse of caffeine. Even skipping meals or fasting can trigger a migraine.               

A common symptom to signify a migraine’s onset is an aura. Examples of aura include visual phenomena, such as seeing shapes or flashes of light, vision loss or blurring, numbness or pins and needles-type sensation in an arm or leg or speech problems. 

Consult your doctor if you experience frequent migraines. A variety of preventative, prescription and as-needed treatments have been designed specifically for the treatment of migraines, such as pain killers, triptans, opiates and beta-blockers. 

  • Rebound Headaches

Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headaches (MOH) are caused by frequent use or overuse of over-the-counter and/or prescription pain medication. These headaches are now considered the third-most prevalent type of headache. 

Rebound headaches tend to occur every day, beginning in the morning and then go away when you take medication, only to come back when the medication wears off. These headaches may be accompanied by anxiety, neck pain, restlessness and poor concentration. 

If you take headache medication more than twice per week or you’re taking more than the recommended dose, you are at-risk for rebound headaches. Fortunately, these headaches can be treated. See your doctor for treatment options.   

  • Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches don’t occur nearly as often as we think. In fact, recent studies suggest that self-diagnosed sinus headaches are almost always actually migraine headaches. It is important to determine which one you are experiencing, as this will affect how it should be treated.

A sinus headache can be described as a migraine with sinus symptoms, such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the ears, fever and facial swelling. Sinus headaches are associated with a deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. This pain usually worsens with sudden head movement or straining. Unlike migraines, sinus headaches do not usually involve nausea, vomiting or light sensitivity. 

Possible treatments for sinus headaches include decongestants, antibiotics, over-the-counter pain medication and nasal irrigation. 

  • Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are aptly nicknamed “suicide headaches,” as some of those affected by them have committed suicide. The pain level for cluster headaches has been described as “the most pain a human can endure – worse than giving birth or getting shot.” This condition is fairly rare. Less than one in 1,000 people will get them and men are more commonly affected than women. 

The onset of a cluster headache attack is rapid and lacks preliminary signs, such as with a migraine. Symptoms of a cluster headache include a stabbing, severe burning or throbbing pain on one side of the head, often above the eye or in the temple. Tearing of the eye, congestion in the nostril on the same side of the pain, pupil changes and eyelid drooping are also commonly known to occur during an attack. 

Cluster headaches can usually last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours or more and often come in clusters, occurring two to three times a day for a number of weeks or months. These bouts are often followed by remission periods when the headaches stop for months and sometimes years. 

Consult your doctor immediately if you are believed to suffer from cluster headaches. Though there is no known cure, there are a number of preventative therapies and treatment options available. In rare cases, surgery may be recommended for people with cluster headaches who don’t respond well to aggressive treatment or who can’t tolerate the medications or their side effects. 

If your headache does not fall within any of the above categories, don’t worry. These are just five of the 150 diagnosed headache categories. Whether you can identify the type of headaches you experience or not, make sure to tell your doctor about your headaches and symptoms. The good news is, once an accurate headache diagnosis is made, an effective treatment plan can be put into place.

If your headaches become worse or more frequent despite treatment, ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist. 

For more information or to make an appointment with Dr. Williams, visit or call 615-284-1450. 

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