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, more than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches. They come in all shapes and sizes, from brutal migraines that pulse steadily for up to three 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 alleviate the agony.
In a word, OUCH. Migraine pain can range from a middle-of-the-road headache to a debilitating pulse or throb. One migraine sufferer likened her pain to a chainsaw being buried in her noggin! 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 might make your pain worse. You may also feel nauseated or throw up. But wait, there’s more! Migraines stick around: They can last from four to 72 hours, and while some people are lucky(ish) to get them just once per month, migraines can also occur far more frequently.
What causes it: When it comes to migraines the big question is: Can we blame biology for this one, or are environmental or dietary triggers to blame? Or is it a little of both? About 70 to 80 percent of sufferers have a family history of migraines. Migraines can be triggered by seemingly innocuous things like irregular sleep, bright or fluorescent lights, excessive noise, intense workouts, stress, and—bummer—even some of our favorite foods (chocolate, booze, and aged cheese, for example).
How to treat it: Keeping a record of when migraines hit can help identify triggers that can be avoided or managed. Migraine-specific versions of the usual over-the-counter pain relievers are one option for pain relief, while chronic sufferers will want to look into prescription pills, nasal sprays, or even injections. Alternative treatments options abound, too, including biofeedback (becoming aware of your body’s physiological functions in order to learn to control some of them), acupuncture, massage, and even cognitive-behavioral therapy.
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, and, like other migraines, may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or light or sound sensitivity.
What causes it: 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.
So named because these headaches strike one after the other for a "cluster period" of four 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 three hours. The pain is located behind or near one eye. These babies are no joke; they can hit between one and three 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 it: 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. Alcohol is linked to cluster headaches, and studies have shown that heavy smokers are at a heightened risk of cluster headaches. High altitudes, bright light, heat, and exertion also seem to trigger cluster headaches.
How to treat it: Due to the quick onset of severe pain, cluster headaches are tough to treat. Inhaling pure oxygen through a mask can help a majority of sufferers, providing relief within 15 minutes. Medications called triptans—available as an injection, nasal spray, or tablet—can also help treat cluster headaches. Preventative treatments are also available.
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, and you may also have a drippy nose, fever, congestion, and/or facial swelling.
What causes it: 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 it: The headache pain can also be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and saline nasal spray, while 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) or nasal corticosteroids (sprays that decrease inflammation of the nose and help alleviate sneezing, itching, and a runny nose). Steam from a pot of hot water (watch your hair if the burner is still on), a vaporizer, or cool-mist humidifier can also provide relief. (Or just let a steamy shower work its magic!)
Rebound Headache (a.k.a Medication-Overuse Headache)
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. They tend to recur daily and can continue for several hours.
What causes it: As the name suggests, medication-overuse headaches result from chronic use of over-the-counter pain meds (Advil, Tylenol, etc.) or other headache medicines. What qualifies as “overuse" depends on the drug, but taking over-the-counter pain relievers for more than a couple days each week could result in a rebound headache.
How to treat it: Reducing your dose of pain medication or stopping altogether is advised here, but be warned: Your pain may get worse before it gets better, and you may have temporary side effects (nausea, constipation, vomiting).
These common headaches—experienced by three out of four adults—are typically mild to moderate, characterized by dull, squeezing pain on both sides of your head. Though these headaches are all-too-common, they don’t usually stick around long, lasting between 20 minutes and two hours.
What causes it: As with migraines, relatively simple things—like stress and fatigue—can set off tension-type headaches. Squinting, bright sunlight, noise, heat or cold, or poor posture can also trigger them.
How to treat it: Once aga, identifying and managing or avoiding triggers can help here. Relaxation techniques; a balanced, healthy diet; and rest can all help too. Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to treat tension-type headaches, and some antidepressants can also help prevent attacks if they keep coming back.
Caffeine headache is a form of rebound headache that results from the interruption of heavy, consistent consumpion of caffeine-containing food, drinks, or medicine.
What causes it: As many of us 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. Most people won’t get a caffeine withdrawal headache unless they have been consuming about 500 milliggrams of caffeine daily—or about two tall Starbucks coffees.
How to treat it: Caffeine withdrawal headaches are temporary, so waiting out the pain is option. Consuming coffee or another caffeinated beverage will curtail pain. Or, if the headaches are coming as a result of a deliberate attempt to cut back on caffeine, doing so gradually will ease the pain. Caffeine-free remedies include aromatherapy, sleep, and caffeine-free over-the-counter pain relievers.
Talk about a buzzkill. Sexual headaches (known formally as coital cephalgia) are "intense, searing" headaches that occur during sexual arousal. 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 prior to or during orgasm.
What causes it: Although they're more common in migraine-sufferers, sexual headaches are not linked to an underlying condition (though it's worth going to the doctor to rule out any underlying issues).
How to treat it: Beta-blockers (drugs that decrease blood pressure), anti-inflammatories, and triptans can be used to prevent sexual headaches, as can (sorry...) going a little easier in the sack or stopping sexual activity as soon as the pain starts.
No, this is not a headache you get when you remember you have a dentist appointment. These are caused by various stressors to the teeth and jaw, and result in pain behind the eyes, sore jaw muscles, or clicking or popping jaw joints. If you’ve got a dental headache, it may hurt to touch your head or scalp.
How to treat it: Clenching or grinding your teeth is often the result of stress and anxiety. Relaxation techniques can help keep facial and jaw muscles relaxed throughout the day. Jaw stretches and ice packs can also help with the pain. Otherwise, see a dentist to have your bite and jaw health examined.
Ice Cream Headache
Sadly, pralines-and-cream pleasure can come sprinkled with intense, if fleeting, pain. When your favorite frozen delight causes rapid dilation of anterior cerebral artery (or, you know, brain freeze), the pain will hit the forehead and/or behind the eyes and nose.
What causes it: Brain freeze is thought to be caused by the brain being flooded with blood (which in turn causes pain) in response to rapid consumption of super cold drinks or food.
How to treat it: Step away from the slushie! 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-ish beverage should stop the pain.
Being dehydrated can bring on pain that occurs on pretty much any part of the head—on one side, in the front or back, or even all over. Walking, moving the head, and bending at the neck can worsen the pain.
What causes it: Research has shown that when you’re dehydrated, blood vessels in the head may narrow to try to regulate levels of body fluid. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for oxygen and blood to reach the brain, which causes a headache.
How to treat it: Hydrate! Fortunately, remedying a dehydration headache is usually as easy as sipping water, an electrolyte-enhanced beverage, or coconut water until you start to feel better. And prevent future dehydration headaches by, well, staying hydrated. Make sure your urine is pale yellow, and drink more water than usual if it’s a hot day or if you’re sweating a lot.
No matter which headache you suffer from, 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, and these things can be helpful in headache management as well. If you find your headaches interfere with your daily life, you should consult a doctor. A physician can rule out other factors contributing to your pain and help devise a treatment plan.