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Decoding Headaches: Six Major Types Of Headaches And How To Identify Them

Was your last headache as common as you think? Was it more of an eye-ache or a jaw-ache? Did the painkiller work or are you still hurting? Asking the right questions about headaches can help you identify and deal with them as soon as possible.

By Debashruti Banerjee
21 Aug 2021

Headaches are one of the most common and yet one of the most frustrating symptoms in existence. The sneaky little nuisance can crop up from seemingly nowhere and debilitate your day-to-day quality of life.


Headaches can stem from a variety of reasons?injuries, dehydration, caffeine withdrawal, a hangover etc. But there are certain types of headaches which are recurring and can be classified on the basis of their location, intensity and persistence (like migraines, sinusitis or tension-type headaches). “Primarily, almost 98% of all headache disorders are treatable,” says neurologist Dr. Rajesh Reddy Chenna of Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad. However, there are a few instances of severe or unusual symptoms (in the case of thunderclap headaches, for example) when immediate medical intervention can possibly prevent a life-threatening situation.

Therefore, it is important to recognise what kind of pain you’re experiencing, where it is centralised and how long it lasts in order to determine whether it can be alleviated with just lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication or whether there might be some underlying problems lurking.



Migraine Headaches

According to Dr. Reddy, this type of a headache usually occurs on one side of the head. “Beginning with mild intensity, migraines peak sharply and can last from anywhere between a few hours and a couple of days,” he adds. Migraines can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.

In a 2014 paper titled “Functioning of Women with Migraine Headaches”, Dorota Talarska et al have put emphasis on the negative impact of migraines on the physical and psychological well-being of the patient. They observe that migraines “limit social relations as well as the capacity to perform professionally and complete household chores. In the period between bouts, patients often try to eliminate possible pain triggers; hence they often put limitations on their private and professional lives.”

It is important to, therefore, address these complications during the diagnosis and treatment of migraines as they are chronic (persistently recurring) and cannot be “cured” per se. They can be managed, at times very successfully, as per Mark W. Weatherall’s 2015 research published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease.


  • Recurrent and often life-long headaches
  • Moderate to intense throbbing pain
  • Pain focused on one side of your head and face
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Need to avoid light, strong odours, routine physical activities


Tension-Type Headaches

Though not life-threatening, Tension-Type Headaches (TTH) can be both chronic or episodic, says Dr. Reddy. Isolated more towards the back of the head, this type of headache carries with it many psychological implications like stress, anxiety and depression. In a 2016 study published in PLOS One, it was concluded that “anxiety and depression were more prevalent in participants with TTH than in non-headache participants. These two conditions were associated with an exacerbation of headache symptoms in individuals with TTH.” Another study, published in 2017 in The Journal of Headache and Pain, revealed that insomnia was an important comorbidity in people suffering from TTH.

Apart from conventional treatment, a 2020 Middle East Current Psychiatry study on academic students has found cryotherapy (ice compression) to be helpful in treating TTH. “After applying cryotherapy in relieving TTH, students feel analgesia (reduction or absence of pain), relaxation, increased effort, and alertness, added to that decreased mental tension and recurrence of headache to a minimum level,” say authors Mona Hassan and Tarek Asaad.



  • Episodic for the majority of people
  • Centralised towards the back of the head and neck
  • Insomnia
  • Often a tight band-like pressure and pain
  • Can last for a few hours or even days


Sinus Headaches

These are characterised by a dull, throbbing pain that can spread to the rest of your face?including your teeth and jaw. The main cause behind this kind of a headache is sinusitis (swelling of your sinuses due to an infection). According to the United Kingdom National Health Service, sinus headaches can also bring about yellow/green mucus discharge from the nose and a fever.

Though sinus headaches generally clear up within 2-3 weeks with the help of nasal sprays or common painkillers, you might need more specialised treatment if symptoms persist or worsen after 3 weeks.



  • Pain and swelling around your cheeks, eyes, jaw
  • Nasal congestion
  • Green/yellow mucus discharge
  • High temperature


Cluster Headaches

As the name suggests, a cluster headache is concentrated in one specific location, usually around one eye. The World Health Organization describes this type as a brief but intense headache which is “relatively uncommon, affecting fewer than 1 in 1000 adults, affecting six men to each woman”.

According to The International Classification of Headache Disorders, the worst cluster headaches are excruciating, where patients are unable to even rest. These headaches can come and go in bouts or cluster-periods of weeks or months, followed by remission or pain-free periods that can last for months or even years.



  • More common in men than women
  • Frequently recurring bouts of extreme pain
  • Usually focused around one eye
  • Watering and redness of affected eye
  • Blocked or running nose


Thunderclap Headaches

Thunderclap headaches are one of the more unusual and severe kinds where, like their name, the intensity peaks within a minute and extreme, nauseating pain can last for five minutes. Even though they come about seemingly without any trigger, they are never to be neglected or taken lightly, recommends Dr. Reddy.

Thunderclap headaches are not to be confused with migraines and not treated lightly. Patients must seek immediate medical attention and may have to undergo imaging of the brain or a lumbar puncture (extracting spinal fluid for testing) to detect any hemorrhaging or other serious issues.



  • Very rare occurrence
  • Possibly the worst headache you can feel
  • Weakness and numbness
  • Impaired vision and speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • May be associated with underlying neurological issues and need immediate medical attention. Only if such issues are undiagnosed in the tests, may be an extreme migraine instead.


Medicine Overuse Headaches

Dr. Reddy says that a nutritious diet, proper hydration and avoiding common triggers (light, heavy spice, strong perfumes etc.) are common ways in which people might alleviate or deal with primary headaches. In terms of paracetamols or painkillers, he advises against going overboard and suggests visiting a doctor in case of frequent headaches.

Since these pills are available over-the-counter, many patients (especially those with chronic migraines) tend to overuse them for short-term relief instead of seeking proper diagnosis for a long-term solution. However, overconsumption can lead to a dull pain called a Medication Overuse Headache or a Rebound Headache. A 2018 paper in the National Center for Biotechnology Information says that “medication overuse headaches are chronic, occurring on more than 15 days per month for three months. People with this kind of headache may still have migraine attacks.” Therefore, it is recommended that patients do not depend too much on these pills and try to address their individual diagnosis from a professionally prescribed point of view.



  • Dull pain all over the head, not like a throbbing migraine
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Bowel issues
  • Sleeplessness and nausea upon medicine withdrawal




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