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An overview of the most common types of headaches

Last Modified: July 17, 2023

Diseases & Disorders, Family Medicine


This post was written based on an appearance by Rita Richardson, MD, PPG—Neurology, on the program PBS Healthline.

Headaches are a common condition that most people will experience in their lives, with the main symptoms being pain in the head or face. And while most headaches come and go without causing us much of a disturbance, some can be debilitating and interfere with your quality of life. There are over 150 different types of headaches, from hormonal and sinus headaches to migraines. Let’s take a closer look at the four types of headaches considered both common and the most likely to interfere with your daily life.

Tension headaches

A tension headache is often caused by stiff muscles in the back or neck and can cause pain in the back of the head, the temples or the forehead. These headaches can last for a few hours or up to seven days. Since they are often caused by stress or tense muscles, treatments can include physical therapy, massage, exercise or meditation.

Sometimes these tension-type headaches are also caused by other factors including dehydration, loud noise, lack of exercise, poor posture or skipping meals.

Medication overuse headaches

About 50% of the people Dr. Richardson treats for headaches can be attributed to medication overuse. These types of headaches are caused when you take an over-the-counter or prescription medicine to treat an acute headache, but begin taking those medications more than two days a week for a period longer than two weeks. That lessens the medication’s effectiveness, and you feel like you have a headache that never goes away.

Your provider can treat your medication overuse headaches by switching your medication. The headaches should then decrease, but if they are still somewhat regular, your doctor will suggest you look for headache triggers that you could treat with lifestyle changes as well.

Migraine headaches

Migraines are a recurrent, repetitive type of headache, meaning that they come back—sometimes frequently and sometimes infrequently, depending on the individual. They can be of moderate to severe intensity. In addition to the pain in your head, migraines can be accompanied by other symptoms, including aura (or visual disturbances), sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, dizziness or imbalance, among other difficulties.

When experiencing a migraine, many people want to lay down in a dark room without any sounds. Because it’s often hard to function during a migraine, people tend to find them to be a significant disruptor in their lives.

Migraines are chronic, which means there is no cure, but by keeping a headache journal and looking for triggers, you can help minimize their recurrence with lifestyle changes.

Cluster headaches

A cluster headache is different from a migraine or a tension headache. Cluster headaches usually cause a stabbing pain and can last a few minutes or a few hours. Unlike a migraine that makes you want to lie down; cluster headaches often cause people to wake up at night and pace. They can be very severe and sometimes worse than a migraine.

Treatment for a cluster headache is different, too. Often, they are so painful people go to the emergency room where they might be given 100% oxygen, or an injection or nasal spray medication to eliminate the headache and provide relief quicker than with an oral medication.

When to see a doctor

You should consult with your primary care provider about your headaches if:

  • Headaches are starting to interfere with your life. (You’re missing a lot of work, are unable to complete household chores, you feel like you can’t rely on your body to not have headaches.)
  • You have four or more headaches a month.
  • You experience atypical symptoms, such as lingering vision problems, especially if you’ve never had that type of headache before.

Head to an emergency room if your headache is:

  • Very severe—you can’t eat, can’t complete everyday tasks, etc.
  • Accompanied by vomiting, as this requires different treatment.


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