Headaches are a real pain. Everybody will get a headache at some point in life. This is why it is one of the most common health complaints. While all headaches are associated with pain or discomfort in the head or face, there are actually more than 100 different kinds, each with varying symptoms and intensity.

Some headaches might require medical attention, while others can be treated with over-the-counter medication or at-home remedies. There are also secondary headaches which are caused by underlying medical conditions. However most stand alone as the main medical problem, and these are called primary headaches.

When it comes to primary headaches, the most common types that cause medical care are: tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. Here is a brief description of each type.

Tension headaches

The most common type of headache is the Tension headaches. You have most likely experienced this type of headache because stress and muscle tension are thought to play a role, as well as genetics and environment. The symptoms of a tension headache usually include some moderate pain on or around both sides of the head, and/or pain in the back of the head and neck. This type of headache builds slowly and is not typically associated with nausea or vomiting. They can however be chronic, occurring often or even every day.

Tension headaches can easily be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers if they are only occurring occasionally, but if you have a chronic condition then you may require prescription medications. Your doctor might suggest a tricyclic antidepressant or muscle relaxant, along with good sleep hygiene, regular exercise, or relaxation techniques such as massage or yoga.


Next are Migraine headaches. These often involve an intense, throbbing pain that might be accompanied with nausea/ vomiting, light sensitivity, and loss of appetite. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services women actually make up 75% of migraine sufferers. Migraines unfortunately can last for several days. They also run in families, indicating a possible genetic cause. This type of headache can also be linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain.

The treatment of migraines depends on its frequency and severity. Your doctor might prescribe you with a so-called “rescue medication”. This kind of medicine is to be taken for immediate relief, and/or a preventative drug to help avoid future migraines.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches can be characterized by a sudden-onset severe pain, that is generally behind one eye. This type of headache is the most severe type, but are actually less common than tension headaches and migraines. Cluster headaches tend to occur in groups, and can occur daily or multiple times a day. They can last 1-3 hours and the pain will occur in the same way each time.

Cluster headaches have several different triggers that can be bring them on. Like alcohol or tobacco use, bright light, heat, and foods that contain nitrates, such as lunch meat or bacon. While there is no known cure for cluster headaches, your doctor can recommend ways for you to mitigate the pain.

These options may include lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, oxygen treatment, Verapamil, a medication that relaxes blood vessels; or Prednisone, a steroid medication to reduce inflammation and swelling.

When to see a doctor

While migraines and tension headaches are common there still comes a time when you should see a doctor. If you experience any of these headaches consistently, then it’s important to speak with your primary care physician so they can help create a treatment plan or refer you to a specialist.

You especially want to seek immediate medical attention if you start experiencing the worst headache you’ve ever had, lose vision or consciousness, have uncontrollable vomiting, or if your headache lasts more than 72 hours with less than 4 hours pain-free.