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Telling the Difference Between Headache Types: Migraines, Cluster, and Tension Headaches

Learning more about the different types of headaches can help you take the right steps to resolve the pain you are feeling and to know when to seek out medical help. There are key differences between the different types of headaches, from the location of the pain to the duration and type of pain you are feeling. Some headaches resolve easily with ibuprofen or another NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) that is available over the counter, while others require medical intervention or a prescription remedy. Learning about the ways different headaches feel, can help you determine what your best course of action is.

What are Tension Headaches?

A tension headache can also be referred to as a stress headache; you may be more likely to feel this if you are in physical or mental distress. Most people experiencing a stress or tension headache say that it hurts on both sides of the head and that the pain is a dull pressure. There may also be tightness in the neck and shoulders. Over the counter pain relievers often reduce or eliminate the pain associated with tension headaches. This type of pain often lasts for a few hours but can last days, and may recur during times of stress. An underlying condition could also be to blame, so if your tension headaches continue, you should seek out medical help.

What are Migraines?

A migraine is far more intense than a tension headache and most people will feel pain on one side of the head. Pain or sensitivity to light may be increased when you have a migraine; some sufferers also experience nausea or vomiting. This is a more severe, throbbing pain that lasts from half a day to 3 days, and while NSAIDs may offer some relief, a prescription medication is sometimes necessary. Prescription treatments include as needed medications to break a headache and preventive medications to reduce how often they occur. Migraines can be triggered by various factors depending on the person; learning your own personal triggers can help you take proactive steps to minimize or prevent a migraine headache.

What are Cluster Headaches?

A cluster headache is an extreme form of pain that is often sharp or stabbing. These come on quickly with the pain on one-side, often be behind or around the eye, causing it to be bloodshot or watery. Cluster headaches are severe and may require a prescription medication or other treatment to find relief. Nasal congestion or a runny nose on the same side of the pain, and a sense of restlessness are also common with cluster headaches. A cluster headache lasts between 15 minutes to 3 hours and often occurs for several months then return. Alcohol will often trigger a headache during the "headache cycle" but will not trigger a headache in the "headache-free" cycle.

Headache Similarities

Tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches all cause pain and can disrupt your day or train of thought. They can also be the result of stressors, diet and environmental changes.

Headache Differences

The primary difference in these common headache types is the severity and location of pain. A tension headache is likely mild and easily treated with an NSAID; a migraine or cluster headache is more severe and disruptive. Treatment varies for each as well; prescription remedies may be required to resolve cluster headaches and migraines, but not necessarily tension headaches.

Timing and gender are also differences in these headache types. Many people wake up in the morning with a migraine, while cluster headaches occur most commonly around 2AM. Migraines occur more often in women, while cluster headaches are seen more in men.

Secondary Headaches

All of the headaches discussed above - tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches - are primary headaches, meaning that they have no known cause. This is different from secondary headaches, where there is an underlying cause such as sinusitis or abnormal blood vessels. The treatment for secondary headaches is often focused on treating the underlying cause, such as antibiotics for sinusitis. Warning signs for serious secondary headaches include a sudden explosive headache, fevers along with the headaches, or paralysis of one side of the body. A new type of headache starting after age 50 is also a warning that you should see a medical provider urgently.

Treatment options

If you are experiencing headaches of any type on a regular basis, seeking out medical help can help you find relief. When you understand what type of headache you have, you will be better equipped to detect triggers and prevent the pain from occurring in the first place.

Contact your doctor to learn more about your headache relief options and for help uncovering the causes of your pain and the ideal treatment for your head pain. We’re committed to helping you find relief and get back to the things you truly enjoy.