Wellness·5 min read

5 Different Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

Person sitting on a couch holding their head
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Pexels
Aug 3, 2022

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

Figuring out how to treat a headache can be a not-so-fun puzzle to solve. Partly because there are so many different types of headaches (see: cluster, tension, migraine, and more), and multiple treatment options for each.

We broke them down, with the help of Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo

What are the different types of headaches — and how do I treat them?

Identifying the type of headache you’re dealing with can be the first hurdle. But the good news: There are several ways to treat each of them (including caffeine). 

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches happen in periodic cycles, and can occur several times a day for a few weeks or months. And each headache can last from 15 minutes to three hours. The pain is typically on the side of the head, often behind the eye. They’re common in people who smoke or drink alcohol frequently. You might notice that they’re accompanied by a runny nose and/or tearing. 

Treatment options for cluster headaches can include: 

  • Preventive medications to prevent cluster headaches (including Injectable medications or other medications like lithium)

  • Oxygen therapy (a doctor-prescribed treatment which involves breathing in oxygen through a mask during a cluster headache)

Migraines

Migraines are characterized by a throbbing sensation on one side of the head, and they can last up to 72 hours. They can be accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. And they’re often preceded by warning signs called “aura,” which can include:

  • Blind spots

  • Seeing flashing lights

  • A ringing in your ears

  • Speech changes

There are a range of triggers that can cause migraines, from stress to hormonal changes to bright lights. But what causes a migraine is specific to each person. So experts recommend keeping a migraine journal where you can document — and eventually, pinpoint — potential causes. 

Treatment options for migraines can include:

  • OTC pain-relievers

  • Hot or cold compresses

  • Resting in a quiet, dark room

  • Avoiding tyramine in your diet (which can be found in smoked and fermented foods, alcoholic drinks, or aged cheeses, and can increase the frequency of migraine attacks).

  • Caffeine 

  • Preventative medications

Tension headaches

Tension headaches can feel like a tightness across your forehead or the back of your head(like a fitted tight hat). And can be caused by stress and/or tense, contracted muscles in the neck and head. 

Treatments for tension headaches can include:

  • Hot compresses

  • OTC pain-relievers

  • Physical therapy

  • Acupressure

  • Acupuncture

  • Prescription pain medications

  • Caffeine

Hypnic headaches

Hypnic headaches generally affect adults who are 50 or older. They’re often called “alarm clock headaches'' because they happen at the same time every night. And can last from 15 minutes to four hours. But experts aren’t sure what causes hypnic headaches.

Treatment options for hypnic headaches can include:

  • Caffeine

  • Lithium (a doctor-prescribedmood-stabilizer)

  • OTC pain relievers that contain caffeine 

Sinus headaches

A sinus headache causes pain and tension behind the eyes, cheeks, forehead, and nose. It’s usually a sign of sinus congestion or a sinus infection. 

Treatment options for sinus headaches can include:

  • Warm compresses

  • Running a humidifier

Does caffeine help headaches?

In low doses, caffeine can relieve a headache, Kruger said. Which is why you’ll often find it as an ingredient in some pain medication (think: Excedrin and Aspirin).

“The blood vessels narrow to restrict the blood flow that alleviates some of the pain that you have with a headache,” said Kruger. 

Caffeine can help with tension, hypnic, and migraine headaches. But if you’re thinking about that time caffeine actually gave you a headache…you’d also be right. Because surprise: In addition to helping headaches, caffeine can also cause them. 

Now, whether or not caffeine will help your headache or give you one will depend on how much you consume. Some research shows that sticking with one to two cups of coffee (about 200 milligrams of caffeine) per day can help prevent migraines. But consuming more than that could actually trigger them. 

theSkimm

Headaches are fun for no one. But there are treatments available. From over-the-counter pain medications to alternative remedies like acupuncture. But if you’re not sure what kind of headache you’re dealing with, at-home treatments aren’t working, or you get frequent headaches, give your doctor a call

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 


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