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Headaches - Different Types and Causes

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Did you know...

Did you know that over 90% of all Americans experience headaches? While headaches may be common, not all are the same. If and how you treat them depends on what type of headaches you experience. Below we will cover the different types of headaches, their symptoms, and their causes.


A Sinus headache is often described as a deep and constant pain in your cheekbones, forehead, or the bridge of your nose. The pain usually gets stronger when you move your head suddenly or strain. You may also experience other sinus symptoms, such as:

  • A runny nose

  • Feeling of fullness in your ears

  • Fever

  • Swelling in your face


Most often, sinus headaches are a symptom of sinusitis, where the sinuses become inflamed from allergies or other triggers like an infection. Other causes of sinus headaches include seasonal allergies that last an extended period of time (also known as rhinitis or hay fever), sinus infections, and sinus blockages.



Tension headaches can be described as a dull pain, tightness, or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. Some people say it feels like something is squeezing their skull. These headaches are the most common type for adults and are often referred to as stress headaches.

Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck regions. A variety of foods, activities, and stressors can cause these types of contractions. Some of the more common triggers include:

  • Alcohol

  • Eye strain

  • dry eyes

  • Fatigue

  • Smoking

  • A cold or flu

  • A sinus infection

  • Caffeine

  • Poor posture

  • Emotional stress

  • Staring at a computer for a long time

  • Driving for long periods

  • Cold temperatures


A migraine is a powerful headache that often is accompanied with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. They can last from 4 hours to 3 days, and sometimes longer.

According to the American Migraine Foundation more than 36 million Americans get them, and women 3 times more often than men. Most people start having migraine headaches between ages 10 and 40. However, many women find that their migraines improve or disappear after age 50.


Doctors don’t know the exact cause of migraine headaches, although they seem to be related to changes in the brain as well as to genes that run in families. You can even inherit the triggers that give you migraine headaches, like fatigue, bright lights, and weather changes. Other common triggers include:

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine

  • Stress

  • Sensory stimuli such as bright lights, sun glare, loud sounds, and strong smells.

  • Changes in sleep

  • Physical Exertion

  • Medications

  • Foods and Eating Habits. Examples include aged cheeses, processed foods, skipping meals, and fasting.

  • Food additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG)



Cluster headaches are a series of relatively short but extremely painful headaches that occur every day for weeks or months at a time. While it’s not always the case, they tend to occur around the same time each year such as spring or fall. As a result of their seasonal nature they are often misdiagnosed as symptoms of allergies.

Symptoms include intense pain around one eye that is severe enough that most people can't sit still and will often pace during an attack. Cluster headaches can be more severe than a migraine, but they usually don't last as long.

Other symptoms include:

  • Discomfort or a mild burning sensation

  • Swollen or drooping eye

  • Smaller pupil in the eye

  • Eye redness or watering

  • Runny or congested nose

  • Red, warm face

  • Sweating


It’s unknown what causes cluster headaches but it has been shown that they are more common in people who smoke and heavy drinkers. During a “cluster period” sufferers are more sensitive to alcohol and nicotine. Having just a little bit can trigger another headache. It’s also believed that these headaches are in some way related to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.



This rare type of severe headache comes on suddenly and is often referred to as the worst headache of a person’s life. The intense pain is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, confusion, and changes in vision. Unlike a migraine, these headaches come on very sudden and grab your attention just like a clap of thunder, hence the name.


The cause of thunderclap headaches, which can be life-threatening, is often some kind of bleeding in or around your brain. This is also known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Other causes include:

  • Small tears in the arteries of your head or neck

  • A burst artery or aneurysm, which is a swollen, weak area in the artery

  • Blocked veins in your head

  • Leaking spinal fluid

  • Rapid changes in blood pressure

  • An infection in your brain

  • Head injury

  • Hemorrhagic stroke (This comes from a ruptured blood vessel in your brain.)

  • Ischemic stroke (This comes from a blocked blood vessel, due to a blood clot, or plaque.)

  • Narrowed blood vessels surrounding the brain

  • Inflamed blood vessels

  • Extremely high blood pressure in late pregnancy



If you’ve ever had an ice pick headache you would know that it’s name quite literally comes from the way it feels - someone stabbing your face with an ice pick. This pain is not only severe but it may happen in the same spot over and over again. Or, you could feel them in different places each time, such as on one temple and then the other. These headaches can crop up at any time of day and even a few times a day.


It’s not clear what causes ice pick headaches but it’s believed that you get them when something is wrong with the way your brain sends pain signals to your body. Doctors have been able to eliminate disease and injury.



When a headache strikes, most of us head for the medicine cabinet for an over-the-counter pain pill, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or pain-relieving drugs with caffeine. But when you don’t follow the instructions on the bottle or from your doctor, these medicines could give you a rebound headache.

When the pain reliever wears off, your body may have a withdrawal reaction, prompting you to take more medicine, which only leads to another headache. And so the cycle continues until you start to have daily headaches with more severe pain more often.

This rebound effect is especially common if your medication has caffeine, which is often included in many pain relievers to speed up the action of the other ingredients. Though it can be helpful, caffeine in medications, along with the other sources you get (coffee, tea, soda, or chocolate), makes you more likely to have a rebound headache.

Overuse of pain relievers also can lead to addiction, more intense pain when the medication wears off, and other serious side effects.

There are many common pain relievers, that 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

  • Sedatives for sleep

  • Codeine and prescription narcotics

  • Over-the-counter combination headache remedies that have caffeine (such as Anacin, Bayer Select, Excedrin)

  • Ergotamine medications (such as Bellergal-S, Bel-Phen-Ergot S, CafatinePB, Cafergot, Ercaf, Ergomar, Migergot, Phenerbel-S, Wigraine)

  • Butalbital combination pain relievers (Fioricet, Fiorinal, Goody's Headache Powder, Supac)


Is reading all of this giving you a headache?! (We hope not!)

As you can see, there are a lot of different causes for headaches, and the nuances between the symptoms, in some cases, can make it challenging to determine what type of headache you are suffering from.

If you have questions about headaches or migraines, and/or the applicable treatments we have at Better Brain and Body to treat them, please contact our office via email at or click below to sign up for a free 15-minute phone consultation.



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