4 Common Types of Headache

millennial man with a headache reading a report on his couch

According to medical literature, there are more than 150 different types of headaches that exist1. Thankfully, only a handful of them are common. Here are four extremely common headaches along with their symptoms, side effects, and a few treatment options.

Tension headaches

Tension, or stress, headaches are the most common type of headaches in adults2. They’re usually described as a dull pain or pressure around the forehead that you may also feel in the back of the head or neck.

Tension headaches usually don’t keep you from your daily activities and won’t affect your vision, balance, or strength. Up to 80% of adults in the U.S. get a tension headache from time to time2. Strangely enough, there’s no known single cause for them. However, tension headaches do have triggers. The most common one seems to be stress, whether from work, school, family, or friends.

A few common symptoms of tension headaches include2:

  • Mild to moderate pain or pressure in the front, top, or sides of the head
  • Headaches that start later in the day
  • Trouble sleeping or feeling very tired
  • Irritability

There is no single cure for tension headaches. Some people find relief with over the counter medications while others prefer alternative medicines like acupuncture or massage. Speak to your doctor, pharmacist, or try different treatments to see what works for you.

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Migraines are powerful headaches that often occur with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. They differ from other types of headaches because of their intensity and can last from 4 hours to 3 days (sometimes longer)3.

Like tension headaches, doctors don’t know the exact causes of migraines. One theory is that they may relate to changes in the brain as well as to genes that run in families. This means if you have a family member that suffers from migraines, there is a chance that you may suffer from them as well.

Things known to trigger or set off migraines are

  • fatigue,
  • bright lights,
  • weather changes,
  • stress,
  • some foods or drinks (such as aged cheese or alcohol),
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG), and
  • caffeine3.

Migraine symptoms include the following:

  • Moderate to severe pain (often described as a pounding, throbbing pain) that can affect the whole head or can shift from one side of the head to the other
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea or vomiting, stomach upset, abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite

Migraines are difficult to treat so most doctors recommend sufferers try to avoid their migraine triggers as much as possible. Keep track of your symptom patterns in a headache diary to figure out what’s causing them.

If migraines do occur, they can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs which often work well for some people. The main ingredients are ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, or caffeine. Be careful when you take OTC pain meds because sometimes they can add to a headache. If you use them too much, you can get rebound headaches or become dependent on the medications3.

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Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are headaches that sound a lot like the name itself – a series of relatively short but extremely painful headaches that come in groups or clusters.

For example, cluster headaches can happen every day for weeks or months, disappear for months or years and come back without any warning. You tend to get them at the same time each year, such as the spring or fall. Because of their seasonal nature, people often mistake cluster headaches for symptoms of allergies or business stress4.

We don’t know what causes cluster headaches, but we do know they involve a nerve in the face. This creates intense pain around one of the eyes and can be bad enough that most people can’t sit still during an attack. Cluster headaches can be more severe than a migraine but they usually don’t last as long4.

Symptoms of cluster headaches:

  • Cluster headaches generally reach their full force quickly, within 5 or 10 minutes.
  • The pain is almost always one-sided, and it stays on the same side during each following attack.
  • A cluster headache lasts a short time – usually 30 to 90 minutes.

Cluster headaches can be treated with a medication called sumatriptan, but it’s best to speak to your doctor first who can make the diagnosis.

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Rebound headaches

When a headache strikes, most of us head to our local pharmacy to buy an over-the-counter pain pill like

  • acetaminophen,
  • aspirin,
  • ibuprofen, or
  • pain-relieving drugs with caffeine.

But when the instructions from the pharmacist or those on the bottle aren’t followed, the medicines you take to get rid of your headache could actually be making your headache worse! This is known as a rebound headache.

For headache sufferers that have been taking a large number of pain-relieving drugs or a single drug for a long period of time, when the pain reliever wears off, your body may have a withdrawal reaction, prompting you to take more medicine. This only leads to another headache and continues the vicious cycle of taking medication for the pain even though the medication itself is causing the pain5.

This rebound syndrome is especially common if your medication has caffeine. Caffeine is often included in many pain relievers to speed up the action of the other ingredients5.

Who Gets Rebound Headaches?

  • Anyone with a history of tension headaches, migraines, or transformed migraines can get rebound headaches if they overuse their pain medications. While small amounts of pain relievers per week may be safe and effective, at some point, too much becomes a bad thing.
  • Many common pain relievers, when taken in large enough amounts, can cause rebound headaches. These include
      • aspirin,
      • sinus relief medications,
      • acetaminophen,
    • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen,
    • codeine, and
    • prescription narcotics.

So how do you know if you’re taking too much pain relief medication? The general rule is use pain relievers on a limited basis and only when you need them. Do not use them more than once or twice a week unless your doctor tells you to.

What Is the Treatment for Rebound Headaches?

Usually, headaches will get easier to control when you stop taking the medicine or gradually take lower doses. Your doctor will probably ask you to record your headache symptoms, how often you have them, and how long they last.

2- WebMD. Tension headache. Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on May 13, 2016. http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/tension-headaches

3- WebMD. Your Guide to Migraine Headaches. Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on January 13, 2017. http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/migraines-headaches-migraines#1

4- WebMD. Cluster headaches. Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on September 03, 2016. http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/cluster-headaches#1

5- WebMD. Rebound headaches.Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on January 13, 2017. http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/rebound-headaches#1

One thought on “4 Common Types of Headache

  1. Amanda Drew says:

    Thanks for letting me know that a theory of why migraines exist is that they’re related to changes in the brain in addition to family genes. I just started to get some, and let’s just say they are not very fun at all. So I want to see a specialist who can better help me figure out how to deal with these changes in the brain. I’ll have to find a brain doctor to go to to help fix it.

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