common types of Headaches – What You Need to Know


Headaches are a very common chief complaint that drives thousands of people to the emergency department (ED) every day.

The diversity of causes and the underlying mechanisms of headaches makes the accurate diagnosis of this condition slightly challenging.

In general, headaches are benign signs that indicate fatigue, lack of sleep, or drastic weather changes. However, they could also result from severe conditions that require immediate medical attention.

In this article, we will discuss the most common types of headaches and their respective causes.

The most common types of headaches

1.     Tension headaches

Tension headaches are by far the most prevalent type of primary headache. They are the result of muscle spasm (i.e., contraction) around the skull, which leads to dull pain localized in the front or back of your head.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tension headaches affect 1 in 20 people in the developed world.

The causes of this headache are diverse and include fatigue, poor sleep, caffeine withdrawal, and extreme temperatures. Fortunately, tension headaches do not require any special treatment since they usually disappear spontaneously.

2.     Migraine headaches

The second type of headache is migraines, which affect both children and adults. With that said, migraine headaches are more common in women than men after the age of puberty.

Researchers have yet to identify the causes of migraines. However, studies managed to pinpoint several risk factors.

For instance, one study concluded that the imbalance in the chemicals of the brain may be the triggering factor of migraines. The primary chemical involved in this process is serotonin, which explains the efficacy of antidepressants on migraine headaches – they increase serotonin levels in the brain.

Besides this process, other risk factors include:

  • Bright lights
  • Loud noises
  • Changes in pressure
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Hormonal fluctuation (e.g., progesterone, estrogen)
  • High-intensity exercise
  • Emotional stress
  • Insomnia
  • Certain medications (e.g., contraceptives)
  • Dehydration
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol

3.     Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches start suddenly and without any signs of warning. The pain is generally severe, and patients describe it as:

  • Sharp
  • Burning
  • Piercing

It also occurs on one side of the head or around the eye.

People often report feeling agitated and restless during the attacks because of the intense pain. They may also react by pacing, rocking, or banging their head against the wall.

Aside from the pain, other symptoms may include:

  • Redness of the eye
  • Swelling eye
  • Small pupil
  • Sweaty face
  • Blocked nostrils

The exact cause of cluster headaches is not clear; however, neuroscientists identified unusual activity in a brain area known as the hypothalamus.

Furthermore, patients who smoke are at risk of getting cluster headaches. A family history of cluster headaches also increases your risk, which may suggest a genetic link.

Takeaway message

Identifying the type of headache that you are dealing with is crucial to choose the appropriate medical management.

We hope that this article successfully addressed the most common types of headaches; however, if you believe that the cause of your headache is different, you should speak with your neurologist for tailored medical advice.

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