Whether it’s the pulsating pain of a migraine or the behind-the-eyes pressure of sinus congestion, nobody likes a headache. And if you suffer from them, you may need to cycle through a dozen different treatments to find one that works. The thing is, headaches—and their causes—are all different. With that in mind, here are the causes of, and treatments for, the most common types of headaches.
The National Headache Foundation lists 30 different varieties of headache on its Complete Headache Chart, and their causes range from forgetting to eat to simple genetics. Most of us will never (hopefully) experience all 30 types, but a few common types do exist that we’re all prone to. Here’s how to deal with them.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They’re accented by mild to moderate pain, tightness and pressure in the forehead or back of the neck. Typically, the pain can be described as “throbbing,” and although these headaches are annoying, they won’t usually ruin your day.
As tension headaches are so common, the causes are pretty widespread. Triggers include anxiety, eye strain, caffeine intake, particular foods, poor rest, bad posture, stress, hunger or just about anything else you can change up in your daily schedule. Tension headaches are also usually the type of headache you end up with after a night drinking alcohol. Essentially, if something is abnormal about your day, whether you had a late lunch or are facing a series of deadlines at work, a tension headache might pop up.
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Tension headaches are usually best handled with an over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen before the pain gets severe. These aren’t cures, but they make the pain go away for a while. In general, your best bet is to rest and relax in a darkened room until the headache goes away. Oddly, a hot pepper may provide some relief. If your headaches occur often enough, your doctor may suggest other solutions. Otherwise, it’s good to find your triggers, minimize them and fight back. If a headache comes from stress, meditation may help. If you’re hungry, eat. If eyestrain is causing you pain, step away from the computer for a while.
Tension headaches are best prevented by tuning your routine to minimize potential triggers. It will take a little trial-and-error to find the exact cause of a tension headache, but if you know they come around when you’re stressed, hungry or tired, you can work on preventing them. Even certain food allergies can trigger a headache.
If you get a headache (or you’re getting them a lot), think back through the day and see what you did differently. If something stands out, it could be your trigger. If you need a little help, an app like Migraine Buddy can make it easier to track your day and root out the causes.
Of course, if alcohol is the cause, there are a few ways of dealing with it. The same goes for those headaches caused by 3D movies, or other types of eyestrain. In fact, if you suspect eyestrain is an issue, it’s also worth checking if you need glasses (or cleaning yours if you’re already wearing some). If your headaches come from bad posture, that can be improved; ergonomically optimizing your workspace can help as well.
Migraines are typically described as a moderate to severe pounding pain that can last for between three hours to several days. You can also experience symptoms like sensitivity to light, noise, or odors, as well as nausea and loss of appetite.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the exact causes of migraines are still unclear, though it’s thought genetics and environment can both play a role (for around 80 percent of migraine sufferers, the problem runs in their family). It’s thought that hormonal changes, stress, unusual sensory stimuli (like weird odors or bright lights), changes in sleep patterns and even a change in the weather can act as potential triggers for a migraine. Your diet can also play a roll in migraines.
Treatments are a mixed bag when it comes to migraines, but doctor-prescribed triptans (like Imitrex, Zomig and Maxalt) are the most commonly effective pain reliever for people when over the counter solutions like Excedrin Migraine don’t work. A quick jolt of caffeine can offer some relief, especially if taken along with an over-the-counter painkiller. If you’re mid-migraine, stretching can also relieve some symptoms. While you’re waiting out the pain, a cold head wrap may provide a little relief.
While migraines may be hereditary, they’re still usually caused by triggers, so use a headache tracking app to identify and avoid them. It’s also thought that light exercises like walking can help prevent migraines; sufferers who practice yoga regularly may also experience less frequent and less intense headaches. A recent Chinese study suggests acupuncture treatments may have preventative effects. While inconclusive, certain remedies like butterbur (a plant extract), magnesium (found in wheat bread, almonds, spinach, and more) and riboflavin (found in cereals, pastas, sauses, and more) may be effective in reducing the frequency of attacks. Getting enough sleep every night is also thought to help decrease the frequency of migraines.
Sinus headaches are characterized by constant pain in the bridge or your nose, around the cheek bones or forehead or a throbbing feeling behind your eyes. Even better, these painful headaches are also usually accompanied by other unpleasant symptoms like ear aches, fever, swelling in the face and a runny nose.
Sinus headaches come about when the sinus gets inflamed, usually from an allergic reaction (that causes sinus congestion) or infection (like a cold or flu). As the sinuses get inflamed, the inflammation causes swelling and increased mucus, and everything gets blocked up.
Treatment of a sinus headache is a tricky business as you need to attack the problem on two different fronts: relieving the pain of the headache itself, and treating the sinus infection. According to WebMD, the best treatment is usually an antibiotic to deal with the infection and antihistamines to help you deal with the symptoms. In the heat of a sinus headache, drinking lots of fluids is key to recovery. A humidifier or salt water nasal spray is often helpful. If you’ve never used a neti pot to flush your sinuses before, it’s probably not a bad idea. Just make sure to use them safely—getting a brain-eating amoeba will definitely cause you more than a headache.
As sinus headaches often stem from two sources, prevention is all about lowering your exposure to both. For allergy related headaches, changing your furnace filter, ditching your carpet, using a dehumidifier, dosing yourself with a nasal spray or even getting allergy shots might help. Certain dietary supplements may also help, including bromelain (found in pineapple stems), and quercetin (found in brewed black or green teal, kale, red onions, and others). Lowering your contact with allegens is key to preventing sinus infections.
Of course, if your sinus infection is due to a cold or flu, then your best bet is to avoid getting sick (which you are no doubt very good at by now). Getting enough sleep, washing your hands (you’re probably not bad at that either) and cutting out cigarettes and alcohol are great ways to prevent illness (also, you know, wear a mask).
As mentioned at the outset, at least 30 different kinds of headaches exist, and all of them with a variety of causes. If headaches are a chronic problem for you, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor. Come prepared to talk about your headache frequency, how long they last, the type of pain you experience along with any associated symptoms), your sleeping habits, and more to help them diagnose the problem.
This article was originally published on February 6, 2013 by Thorin Klosowski and updated on June 30, 2020 by Joel Cunningham. Updates included updating the lede, checking links for accuracy and refreshing dead links throughout, adding additional information on treatments and preventative measures and changing the header photo.