Ranging from a 3 p.m. coffee-crash throb to an agonizing pain that leaves you light-sensitive and nauseated, headaches are something most, if not all of us, have experienced.
In fact, the World Health Organization says that 1 out of every 20 people worldwide have headaches every day, or close to it.
Headaches come in all shapes and sizes, from brutal migraines that pulse steadily for up to 3 days to sinus headaches that make your whole face — from chin to cheeks — feel like it’s in a vise.
Here, we’ve rounded up the most common headaches, explained what they feel like and why they occur, and how to relieve the agony.
In a word: OUCH. Migraine pain can range from a middle-of-the-road headache to a debilitating pulse or throb.
The pain is usually localized to one side of the head, often beginning in the area surrounding the eye and temple.
To add insult to injury, if you’re dealing with a migraine, you won’t want to wait it out by curling up with Netflix because sound and light could make your pain worse. You may also feel nauseated or throw up.
But wait, there’s more! Migraine headaches stick around: They can last from 4 to 72 hours. While some people are lucky(ish) to get them just once per month, migraine can also occur far more frequently.
What causes migraines?
When it comes to migraine headaches the big question is: Can we blame biology, or are environmental or dietary triggers to blame? Or is it a little of both?
About 70 to 80 percent of people who get migraines have a family history of these headaches. Migraines can be triggered by seemingly innocuous things like:
- irregular sleep
- bright or fluorescent lights
- excessive noise
- intense workouts
- foods like chocolate, alcohol, and aged cheese
- monosodium glutamate (MSG) in some foods
How to treat migraines
Keeping a record of when your migraines hit can you help identify triggers that you can avoid or manage. In addition to avoiding triggers, following healthy behaviors like exercising, getting enough sleep, eating regularly, and managing stress can help prevent these painful headaches.
Migraine-specific versions of the usual over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are one option for pain relief. People who get these headaches regularly may want to look into prescription pills, nasal sprays, or even injections.
Several drugs prevent migraine headaches before they start, including blood pressure drugs and antidepressants. The FDA recently approved a new class of injectable drugs called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) monoclonal antibodies to prevent migraine.
Alternative treatment options also abound, including:
- biofeedback (becoming aware of your body’s physiological functions in order to learn to control some of them)
- cognitive-behavioral therapy
Diet may also play a role in preventing migraine. A 2016 review of studies found that people who ate diets low in fat, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and low in omega-6 fatty acids had fewer attacks of migraine and other headache types.
As if bloating and cramps weren’t enough, some women experience menstrual migraines along with their periods (before, during, or after).
This sort of migraine brings throbbing and one-sided pain. Like other migraines, it may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or light or sound sensitivity.
What causes menstrual migraines?
Changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle are thought to trigger these migraines. Certain kinds of birth control may be to blame due to the way that oral contraceptives impact estrogen levels.
How to treat menstrual migraines
OTC and prescription pain relievers and triptans can help treat menstrual migraines. Relaxation exercises, biofeedback, and acupuncture may also provide relief.
So named because these headaches strike one after the other for a “cluster period” of 4 to 12 weeks, cluster headaches pack a serious pain punch.
They typically start a few hours after you fall asleep at night (although they can strike at other times, too) and can last from 15 minutes to more than 3 hours.
The pain is located behind or near one eye. These headaches are no joke. They can hit between 1 to 3 times daily during a cluster period.
And even if you try to tough out your cluster headache, your accompanying stuffy nose, drooping eyelid, or swollen eye may blow your cover.
What causes cluster headaches?
While their exact cause is unknown, the onset of cluster headaches seems to be connected to the body’s release of histamine (the chemical at play in allergic reactions) or the neurotransmitter serotonin.
High altitudes, bright light, heat, and exertion also seem to trigger cluster headaches.
How to treat cluster headaches
Due to the quick onset of severe pain, cluster headaches are tough to treat. Keeping a journal can help you identify your triggers, so you can avoid them.
Inhaling pure oxygen through a mask can help a majority of sufferers, providing relief within 15 to 20 minutes.
Medications called triptans — available as an injection, nasal spray, or tablet — can also help treat cluster headaches. And preventive treatments like verapamil (Calan, Verelan) and corticosteroids can help head off these headaches before they start.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call these faceaches. If your face hurts, specifically around your nose and eyes, cheeks, forehead, or upper teeth, you may very well have a sinus headache.
With a sinus headache, the pain typically gets worse if you move your head suddenly. You may also have a drippy nose, fever, congestion, and/or facial swelling.
What causes sinus headaches?
You can blame sinusitis — swelling and inflammation of the sinus membranes — for this one. Sinusitis can result from colds, infections, a weakened immune system, or structural issues like a deviated septum.
You’re more susceptible to chronic sinusitis if you’ve got asthma or allergies, or if you’re regularly exposed to pollutants and irritants.
How to treat sinus headaches
You can treat sinus headache pain with OTC pain relievers, decongestants, and saline nasal spray. Nasal irrigation kits may help provide relief by draining your nasal passages and reducing inflammation.
Prescription options include antibiotics if the sinusitis is due to bacteria. Nasal corticosteroid sprays decrease inflammation of the nose and help alleviate sneezing, itching, and a runny nose.
Steam from a pot of hot water, a vaporizer, or cool mist humidifier can also provide relief. Or, just let a steamy shower work its magic!
Pain-wise, these headaches run the gamut. The pain of a medication-overuse headache may be dull, similar to a tension-type headache, or it may be more intense and similar to a migraine. These headaches tend to return each day, and can continue for several hours.
What causes a rebound headache?
As the name suggests, medication-overuse headaches result from chronic overuse of OTC pain medicines (Advil, Tylenol, etc.) or other headache medicines.
What qualifies as “overuse” depends on the drug. Taking OTC pain relievers for more than a couple of days each week could result in a rebound headache.
How to treat rebound headaches
Reducing your dose of pain medication or stopping altogether may be advised here. Just be warned: your pain may get worse before it gets better, and you could have temporary side effects (nausea, constipation, vomiting).
These are the most common headaches. They’re so common, in fact, that up to 78 percent of adults have had them at one time or another, according to the International Headache Society.
Tension headaches are typically mild to moderate. They’re characterized by dull, squeezing pain on both sides of your head.
Though these headaches are all-too-common, they don’t usually stick around for very long. The typical tension headache lasts for around 30 minutes, although some can linger for a few hours.
What causes tension headaches?
As with migraines, relatively simple things — like stress and fatigue — can set off tension-type headaches. Squinting, bright sunlight, noise, heat or cold, and poor posture can also trigger them.
How to treat tension headaches
Identifying and managing or avoiding your triggers can help here. Relaxation techniques, a healthy and balanced diet, and rest can ward off these headaches, too.
You can try OTC pain relievers to treat tension-type headaches. Some antidepressants can also help prevent attacks if these headaches keep coming back.
Caffeine headache is a form of rebound headache. It happens when you take a break from consistent consumption of caffeine-containing foods, drinks, or medicine.
What causes caffeine headaches?
As many heavy coffee-, tea-, and soda-drinkers can attest, not being able to get your hands on your caffeinated drug of choice can trigger a nasty headache.
Everyone responds to caffeine differently. The best way to know how much of it sets off your headaches is to keep a diary.
If you get migraine headaches a few times a month, the American Migraine Foundation recommends limiting your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams per day — about the equivalent of one or two cups of coffee. And if your headaches come daily, avoid caffeine altogether.
How to treat caffeine headaches
Caffeine withdrawal headaches are temporary, so waiting out the pain is one option. Consuming coffee or another caffeinated beverage can curtail pain temporarily.
If your headaches are the result of an attempt to cut back on caffeine, weaning yourself off it more gradually will help prevent them.
Talk about a buzzkill. Sexual headaches (known formally as coital cephalgia) are intense headaches that occur during sexual arousal or orgasm.
The pain starts around the base of the skull and then moves to the front of the head to the eyes. For some people, the headache starts as a sudden surge of pain before or during orgasm. Luckily, these headaches are rare, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
What causes sexual headaches?
Although sexual headaches are more common in migraine-sufferers, they’re not linked to an underlying condition.
But because they could be symptoms of more serious health issues, like a brain bleed or a tear in an artery, it’s worth going to the doctor to have it checked out.
How to treat sexual headaches
To prevent a headache from ruining your perfect evening, you can try anti-inflammatory drugs or triptans. Once you’re in the middle of sex (sorry…), the best way to relieve the pain is to stop what you’re doing.
No, this isn’t a headache you get when you remember you have a dentist appointment. Dental headaches are caused by various stressors to the teeth and jaw.
They cause pain behind the eyes, sore jaw muscles, and clicking or popping jaw joints. If you’ve got a dental headache, it may hurt to touch your head or scalp.
What causes dental headaches?
Dental headaches can be caused by overworked, strained jaw muscles or issues with your bite. Grinding your teeth and problems with your jaw (like TMJ) can also cause these headaches.
How to treat dental headaches
Clenching or grinding your teeth is often the result of stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques can help keep your facial and jaw muscles lax throughout the day.
Jaw stretches and ice packs can also help with the pain. If these measures don’t work, see a dentist for an exam of your bite and jaw.
Sadly, cookies-and-cream pleasure can come sprinkled with intense, if fleeting, pain. When your favorite frozen delight causes rapid dilation of the anterior cerebral artery (or, you know, brain freeze), the pain will hit your forehead or the area behind your eyes and nose.
What causes ice cream headaches?
Brain freeze is thought to be caused by the brain being flooded with blood, which in turn causes pain. That flood of blood is a response to the rapid consumption of super cold drinks or food.
How to treat ice cream headaches
Step away from the slushy! Enjoy crazy cold stuff slowly to give your mouth a chance to warm up whatever you’re about to swallow. If the pain hits, holding your tongue on the roof of your mouth (seriously!) or drinking a warm beverage should stop it.
Being dehydrated can bring on pain in pretty much any part of the head—on one side, in the front or back, or all over. Walking, moving your head, and bending at the neck can worsen the pain.
What causes a dehydration headache?
When you’re dehydrated, blood vessels in your head may narrow to try to regulate levels of body fluid. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for oxygen and blood to reach your brain, which causes a headache.
How to treat a dehydration headache
Hydrate! Fortunately, remedying a dehydration headache is usually as easy as sipping water or an electrolyte-enhanced rehydration beverage until you start to feel better.
Prevent future dehydration headaches by, well, staying hydrated. Make sure your urine is pale yellow. Drink more water than usual if it’s a hot day or if you’re sweating a lot.
No matter which type of headaches you get, it’s a good idea to look at your lifestyle as a first step. We all know the benefits of adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise. These things can be helpful in headache management, as well.
If you find your headaches interfere with your daily life, consult a doctor. A doctor can rule out other factors that might be contributing to your pain and help devise a treatment plan.