Got A Headache? Find Out Which Kind It Is

In the classic 1990 comedy, Kindergarten Cop, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character tells a class of rambunctious kindergartners that he has a headache, but adamantly claims, “It’s NOT a tumor!” When it comes to a headache, though, it could be caused by any number of things, including tumors: it’s important to pay attention to the symptoms! In most cases, headaches are a normal part of life, but, for some people, they can get in the way of work, friends, and family life. So this June, for National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, take the time to familiarize yourself with the different types of headaches that you could be suffering from. With this knowledge, you can determine which kinds are affecting you, how to prevent them, and how to get over them more quickly when they do strike.

What Is A Headache?

silhouette of a head with two red lightning bolts inside of the head.
Headaches are common and can be triggered by hormones, your environment, or your diet.

Headaches are the most common pain-related conditions in the world! We get them when blood vessels swell or tighten, and surrounding nerves signal pain to the brain. The pain can be felt in your head, neck, sinuses and ears, and can last anywhere from hours to days. Suffering from headaches, especially migraines, can be hereditary. In fact, children with parents who get migraines are 4 times more likely to develop migraines.

Headaches can be triggered by multiple things, including hormones (ugh, periods), environmental factors such as allergens, secondhand smoke, or your diet. Triggers differ from person to person, and headaches can affect everyone differently, but if you can identify a pattern, then you can figure out what type of headaches you get and how to treat them properly.

Types of Headaches

Thanks to research and clinical trials, we have come a long way in figuring out what causes headaches and how to treat each kind. “We know a lot more than we did 20 years ago about what causes headaches,” says Charles Flippen, MD, associate professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “We know what areas of the brain are generating pain, but we don’t have the whole picture.”

There are around 150 different kinds of headaches, but they can be put into 2 different categories:

Primary Headaches

These are not caused by a medical condition, and are not dangerous. The pain from these headaches is associated with inflammation of pain-sensitive parts of the body around the neck and head. Some of the most common types of primary headaches include:

  1. Tension headaches– These are the most common type of headache, and feel like constant pressure around the forehead, back of the head or neck. Over-the-counter treatments, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen will help get rid of the pain. illustration of a woman crying while holding her temple with one hand
  2. Migraines– These intense headaches can be debilitating for some people, and can cause vomiting, neck pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and/or sound. If not treated, a migraine can last for 4 or more hours, or even several days. A common trigger for migraines is a change in your body, such as one due to hormones, stress, or a disruption to your sleep patterns. Women are 3 times more likely to suffer from migraines than men are. Treatment can include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or medications prescribed by a doctor, as well as rest in a quiet, dark room with a hot or cold compress. 
  3. Cluster headaches– These are recurring headaches that can occur on and off for 8 days straight. They can last 15 minutes to an hour and a half, and other symptoms can include red or watery eyes and nasal congestion. Cluster headaches can sometimes be genetic, but triggers include alcohol, smoking, and certain foods. There is no cure for these headaches, but medication can reduce how long they last and how often they occur. Treatments can include prescription nasal sprays, oxygen therapy, and preventive medications.
  4. Hypnic headaches– These are rare headaches that occur in people between the ages of 40 and 80. They occur at night and last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. There are no specific treatments for hypnic headaches.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches are related to another medical condition that triggers pain-sensitive areas in the neck and head. They are rarer than primary headaches, but are more serious; they can be a warning sign of conditions including brain tumors, aneurysms, meningitis or head injuries. Some of the most common secondary headaches include:

illustration of a women holding the side of her head with pills next to her
Rebound headaches occur from the overuse of painkillers.
  1. Sinus headaches– If your sinuses become inflamed, you will experience a fever, pain and nasal discharge that is green or has hints of red. Other symptoms include facial swelling, deep, constant pain in your cheekbones and forehead, and a bad taste in your mouth. Treatment for sinus infections can either be a round of antibiotics, or simply giving it time to clear up. Antihistamines or decongestants can help with symptoms.
  2. Rebound headaches– The overuse of painkillers for headaches can lead to rebound headaches. Taking too much medication can shift the brain into an excited state, which will trigger a headache. Taking any pain reliever more than twice a week or taking triptans (migraine drugs) for more than 10 days a month, can put you at risk for rebound headaches.

Contact Your Doctor

If you’re suffering from a headache that will not go away, or that gets worse over time, contact your doctor, as you could be suffering from an underlying condition. Your doctor can perform an array of tests including a MRI, CT scan, blood test, and a spinal tap if necessary. This way, any serious condition can be ruled out, or if found, treated immediately. Once you are aware what kind of headache you have, you can learn how to treat and even prevent one from occurring in the future. Lifestyle modifications can help eliminate triggers that contribute to your headaches. 

It is important to have the right health insurance, otherwise diagnosis and treatment for things like chronic headaches could end up costing you quite a bit of money. Health insurance plays a big role in how much you will pay for medications and any methods used to diagnose a headache. Having a good plan can make the process less stressful. To get free instant quotes and compare plans in minutes, simply enter your zip code in the bar above, or to speak to a licensed agent in your area, call 888-350-1890.

About The Author:
Cassandra Love

With over a decade of helpful content experience Cassandra has dedicated her career to making sure people have access to relevant, easy to understand, and valuable information. After realizing a huge knowledge gap Cassandra spent years researching and working with health insurance companies to create accessible guides and articles to walk anyone through every aspect of the insurance process.

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