Headache Types - which do you have?
What do the different headache types mean?
The type of headache is a key step in working out what is causing your headache.
This in turn gets to a headache diagnosis, which then provides the answer to your burning question: What can I do to relieve my headache?
Most doctors when asked about headache types will jump straight to talking about a diagnosis, without explaining the reason why such a diagnosis is possible.
It is better to think types of pain, types of accompanying symptom and types of activity that are associated with headache.
Links to more detailed description of these symptoms are at the bottom of the page.
- Headache Types: What the Head Pain Feels Like
The Timing or Duration of the HeadacheWhat You Are Doing When the Headache Starts
- Sharp Head Pains (like those caused by "Ice-pick Headache") are very common and not usually serious if they are sharp and short-lived. They are a nuisance if they occur many times per day, but most people will cope with them if they know that they are not serious
- Pounding Headache or Throbbing Headache - will usually be the common type of pain experienced by people with migraine headache. In migraine there is also "sensory sensitivity"
- A Pressure type of Headache is most commonly due to Tension-type Headache, which is not at all serious.
People with cluster headache will often describe their pain as an intense pressure around the eye or nose, but they will also have other symptoms of "autonomic activation (see below)".
A pressure type feeling in the head can sometimes be due to raised fluid pressure within the head, and this is especially true in people who are very overweight with constant severe headaches of recent onset.
People who know they have migraine will sometimes start to complain of pressure-type or heavy discomfort in their head. If you have migraine and are starting to get a heavy, pressure discomfort pain in your head you may be developing into Chronic Migraine.
- The medical term "Neuralgia" means an extremely intense sharp pain, which can be triggered by touch or movement. The diagnosis of neuralgia depends on the site of the pain and what triggers the pain.
There are several common types of neuralgia which is usually a much more intense experience than ice-pick pains. People with severe neuralgia will often require admission to hospital to control their pain
- If a headache only starts during Exercise, it will need to be investigated to rule out Chiari Malformation. In older people Cardiac Cephalalgia is a rare, but treatable cause. Most cases (>80%) do not have any cause and are called Primary Exercise Headache
- A Headache when you Cough is not usually due to any identifiable problem on a brain scan. The most common cause seen is also Chiari Malformation.
- A headache at Orgasm or during Sexual Activity can cause a lot of distress. A small number of these will be due to something serious such as a brain haemorrhage. However, people with repeated episodes will usually have no cause identified or be found to have the Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome.
- Headaches During Pregnancy are almost always due to migraine. However, there are a small number of complications affecting the arteries or veins in the head that may need to be investigated before making a conclusion of migraine
These Other Symptoms are Important to know when describing Headache Types
As well as the type of pain, these lists of accompanying symptoms are very important when trying to make sense of headache types:
- Is Sensory Sensitivity present?
At least one, preferably two, of these symptoms must be present to end up with a diagnosis of migraine headache:
- Intolerance of light or preference for dark (photophobia)
- Intolerance of noise or preference for quiet (sonophobia or phonophobia)
- Intolerance of smell (osmophobia)
- Intolerance of movement - preference to lie down
- Some people also do not want to be touched or have anything in contact with their head
Sensory Sensitivity is the hallmark of migraine, and at least two of the sensory sensitivity symptoms are present in definite migraine. Autonomic Activation
These symptoms may make you think you have a problem with one of your sinuses, but migraine can sometimes cause these symptoms too! Cluster Headache is the most severe cause of bouts of headache with autonomic activation.
- Watering of the eye - lacrimation
- Nasal congestion
- Running of the nose - rhinorrhoea
- Drooping of the eyelid - ptosis
- Reddening of the eye - conjunctival injection
- Swelling around the eye
There are also some very rare headaches that respond to Indomethacin called Paroxysmal Hemicrania that can have autonomic activation as a strong feature of this headache type. Other symptoms
Whatever your headache type, the description you give of your headache is a crucial way to end up with a correct diagnosis.
Useful Links on Headache Types and Symptoms
Go Back from Headache Types to Severe Headache Expert Home Page