Different Types of Headaches and What They Mean

Different Types of Headaches and What They Mean


Most people at some point in time have experienced the throbbing pain of a headache. And when it happens, you immediately know it’s a feeling you wish you weren’t experiencing. Headaches can range in severity and length and are dependent upon several different factors. It is pretty obvious when a headache comes on, but what might not be so obvious is the fact that there are different types of headaches.

What are the different types of headaches?

While there are over 150 different kinds of headaches, all fall into one of two categories: primary or secondary.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches are those that are not due to another condition. Studies and Research shows that “primary headaches are composed of multiple entities that cause episodic and chronic head pain in the absence of an underlying pathologic process, disease, or traumatic injury.” Some of the most common types of primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches.

Secondary Headaches

This type of headache is due to an underlying/secondary medical condition. Occasionally, they can be caused by a serious medical problem but can also be due to something simple and easy to fix. Different causes of secondary headache can include brain tumors, trauma, infection, aneurysm, neck injury or tension, brain injury, and meningitis.

What causes these different types of headaches?

The pain you feel when you have a headache is due to signals that your body gets from the brain, blood vessels, and nerves. When a headache comes on, specific nerves are turned on that send pain signals to your brain that something is wrong.

Primary headaches mean that the headache itself is the problem, which is why these types of headaches may be painful but typically are not dangerous.

They are often triggered by things such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Lack of sleep
  • Changes in sleep
  • Missed meals
  • Stress
  • Caffeine

Secondary headaches mean that the headache is caused by an underlying problem. Many times, that underlying pain is not urgent but is rather caused by neck pain that leads to headaches. There is, however, a rare chance that something more serious is causing the secondary headache, and those things may include:

  • Dehydration
  • Hangovers
  • High blood pressure
  • COVID-19
  • Blood clot
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Concussion
  • Panic attacks
  • Stroke

Where is the pain located for each kind of headache?

Pain in different areas can help to identify different kinds of headaches.

Migraines. This pain is typically felt on one side of the head.

Tension headaches. Usually, these headaches are felt on the back of the head as well as the temples and the forehead.

Cluster headaches. This type of headache often occurs on one side of the head and the area around the eyes.

Cervicogenic headaches (secondary). You may experience pain from this headache on one side of the head. It may start in the neck and radiate to the forehead.

Medication overuse headaches (secondary). This headache usually results in a dull pain that persists throughout the head.

Sinus headaches (secondary). Typically, sinus headaches cause pressure around your eyes, your cheeks, and your forehead.

How is the type of headache diagnosed?

To diagnose a primary headache, doctors will often ask patients to keep a headache diary that tracks their symptoms as well as a log about what may be potential triggers for their headaches.

Diagnosing a secondary headache takes a bit more work. Medical history is usually taken into account along with something like a CT scan or an MRI or maybe even a spinal tap to test and see what deeper issues may be at hand.

How do you treat headaches?

The treatment depends upon the type of headache you’re experiencing.

If you are dealing with primary headaches, it is important to know what your triggers are (which you can determine with your headache diary). Once you know what your triggers are, you can work towards fixing the root of the problem.

For example, if you find you get headaches when you drink coffee or alcohol, then you should try your best to cut back on the amount of those drinks you consume. If you get headaches in high-stress situations, your doctor may suggest that you seek professional help for stress management.

Did you know that studies show that physical therapy has the power to do wonders for headaches? With the help of physical therapy, you may be able to determine the underlying causes and treat the pain as well as help prevent future headaches.

A physical therapist will complete a comprehensive evaluation aimed at determining the musculoskeletal causes of your headaches and will create a customized program to address your needs.

Some physical therapy treatment options may include:

  • Manual techniques including soft-tissue and cervical mobilization to improve cervical motion and reduce muscle tension.
  • Strengthening and stability training for the head and neck muscles with an emphasis on improving posture and neck alignment.
  • Breathing techniques to increase blood flow to the head, reduce tension in the neck muscles, and alleviate stress.
  • Ergonomic assessment for both work and leisure activities to lessen neck tension.
  • Modalities (heat, ice, electrical stimulation)
  • Traction
  • Dry Needling

If you’re struggling with headaches, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist near you today.

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