Headaches: Types, Triggers & Treatment

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

There are four main types of headaches. Many headaches are caused or related to stress. This lesson discusses the symptoms, triggers and various treatments for tension, cluster, sinus and migraine headaches.


We've all had headaches. Thankfully, headache pain does not usually signal a serious health issue. However, headache pain is certainly uncomfortable and disruptive. A patient's chief concern is usually pain relief. What do you do to escape the pain? Do you reach for the aspirin? Or take a nap?

The most effective relief depends on the type of headache. That's why it's important to know the various types of headaches and their symptoms. Once you know what type of headache you are experiencing, you can choose the proper treatment.

There are four main types of headaches:

  • Tension
  • Cluster
  • Sinus
  • Migraine

Tension Headaches

Most headaches are tension headaches. This is especially true for women, who tend to experience more tension headaches than men. Most tension headaches are mild.

These headaches usually feel like continuous pressure, or squeezing, around the entire head. Many people feel pain equally in their temples or at the back of their heads. That's because tension headaches are often caused by contracting muscles in the head, face and neck. The muscle tension is triggered by stress, such as overwork or lack of sleep.

Over the counter medications typically work well to ease the pain. Many doctors suggest aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen. However, some people experience chronic tension headaches, meaning they experience tension headaches 15 or more days per month, for several months. For these patients, doctors often suggest relaxation techniques, exercises, lifestyle changes or prescription painkilling medication such as Naproxen.

Cluster Headaches

Unlike tension headaches, cluster headaches are more common in men than women. Cluster headaches are a series of recurring headaches, and the least common type of headache. They occur in sets, or cycles, of one to three times per day for several weeks. Some people experience cluster headaches during the same general time period each year, like early spring.

Most sufferers feel pain on only one side of the head - often near one eye. On that same side, patients often experience a watering eye, nasal congestion or a runny nose.

Most cluster headaches are more severe than tension headaches. They come on suddenly, and can be quite painful. The pain is often described as sharp, or piercing. Some patients are even awakened from sleep with this type of headache. For that reason, some experts believe cluster headaches may be caused, or linked to, something in the patient's circadian rhythm. This is the patient's sleep cycle set by the patient's natural biological clock. Some research shows the headaches might be hereditary. Generally, however, the cause and triggers of cluster headaches is unknown.

Many doctors suggest preventative prescription medication to help avoid the episodes. Once a patient has a headache, prescription medication is most effective for relief. Many doctors prescribe Imitrex or other triptan drugs.

Sinus Headaches

Now let's take a look at sinus headaches. These headaches result when a sinus cavity becomes inflamed, such as when a patient suffers from a sinus infection. An inflamed sinus is known as sinusitis.

Your sinus cavities are pathways located near your nose, eyes and cheeks. Sinus headaches are somewhat easy to identify, because patients will experience dull or throbbing pain in one or more of their sinus areas. If the patient suffers from a sinus infection, the patient may also have a fever and nasal congestion with greenish discharge. However, many sinus headaches are triggered by allergies and colds.

Sinus headaches are sometimes worse in the morning and when the patient experiences a sudden temperature change, like going outside on a chilly day.

A sinus infection is a bacterial disease, and typically treated with prescription antibiotics. Many patients also find relief through prescription nasal corticosteroids designed to reduce sinus inflammation, like Flonase and Nasacort.

Over the counter antihistamines and decongestants also work well, though these are short-acting treatments best suited for mild to moderate headaches. Keep in mind that the overuse of short-acting decongestants or painkillers can actually cause headaches. This type of headache is known as a rebound headache.

Migraine Headaches

Lastly, let's examine migraine headaches. These recurring headaches are thought to be the most painful and most difficult to manage. Experts believe they are caused by the constricting and dilating of certain blood vessels in the brain.

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