What Does Your Headache Mean? - Healthy Living Association

What Does Your Headache Mean?

Have you ever had a headache? This is an extremely common condition. In fact, according to the World Health Organization around 75% of adults 17 to 65 years old have had a headache within the past year [4]. From those, about a third of them report having migraines. However, not all headaches are created equal. Do you know what yours mean? Here’s what your headache means, depending on where it hurts.

Why do headaches happen? Headache definition

A headache is simply pain localized in the head. Of course, headaches can feel as general pain or more localized on a single side of the head, throbbing or aching. Depending on the cause, your headache could develop suddenly or slowly, and last up to several days.

Types of headaches

To understand what your specific headache means, let’s dive into the different types. Experts lump headaches into 2 large categories according to their cause: primary and secondary:

  • Primary headaches: these are caused by issues with your head’s nerves, blood vessels or muscles, and are an independent symptom. When a patient is diagnosed with primary headaches, their doctors will treat the headache on its own.
  • Secondary headaches: these types of headaches are considered symptoms of a larger underlying disease that can trigger your nervous system. As such, if you’re diagnosed with secondary headaches your doctor will treat the underlying condition and eventually the headaches will subside. Some of the conditions that can cause headaches are sinusitis, blood clots, tumors and concussions, among others.

Are headaches and migraines the same?

While it’s common to confuse the two, headaches and migraines aren’t the same thing. Simply put, a migraine is a chronic headache disorder characterized by recurrent headaches and other debilitating symptoms. On the other hand, a common headache is less intense and easily manageable.

Migraine-sufferers find their headaches interfere with their daily life, and sometimes a migraine episode doesn’t even include a headache! In those cases, you might be more sensitive to light and sound, or you might present visual symptoms like blind spots or flashes of light.

What does my headache mean? Where does it hurt?

Depending on where you feel it and its intensity, your headache could be a sign of specific conditions. Here’s what you should look out for:

1.      Intense, throbbing pain that lasts a while

This is probably: Migraine

Symptoms: besides the pain, migraines tend to cause nausea. You’ll also be more sensitive to light and noise. Some people have it only in one side of the head or is  general feeling, but this changes from patient to patient. In many cases, migraines run in the family. According to the Mayo Clinic, your doctor will probably diagnose migraines with a combination of a neurological examination and your medical history [1].

How to deal: If you suspect you’re having migraines, it’s a good idea to go to your doctor. They’ll run some extra tests to confirm your diagnosis. In the meantime, or if you have already been diagnosed, here are some recommendations:

  • Keep a diary: migraines tend to have a pattern, so keeping a diary will help you and your doctor recognize it more easily. A migraine diary should mention foods eaten, physical activity, stress levels and sleep patterns.
  • Sleep enough: according to several studies [2], migraine patients tend to need more sleep than other people and lack of rest could onset a new episode. Avoid this by getting enough sleep, and making sure you’re as undisturbed as possible while resting.
  • During an episode, stay in the dark: many migraine patients report light sensibility during and after an episode. This is because light increases nerve activity and contributes to pain [3].

2.      Throbbing pain with visual symptoms

This is probably: Migraine with aura

Symptoms: very similar to those of a plain migraine, but paired with what experts call sensory disturbances [5]. These disturbances include, but aren’t limited to: light sensitivity, perceiving sudden flashes, blind spots and tingling in the face or hands.

How to deal: In general, the treatment for migraines with aura is the same as for other migraines. Keeping a diary is a good idea to understand what triggers your episodes. On the other hand, making sure you get enough sleep is essential to avoid unnecessary pain.

To manage the visual symptoms, try to invest in a good pair of high-coverage sunglasses. These will keep most of the light out of your eyes and alleviate part of the disturbances.

3.      One-sided pain that lasts less than 2 hours and has a cyclical pattern

This is probably: a cluster headache

Symptoms: this is a relatively uncommon type that tends to last between 20 minutes and 2 hours. These headaches occur frequently, then go away for weeks or months. Some people spend years without headaches, but then they start again. These clusters usually include other one-sided symptoms like a stuffy nose, tearing in one eye only and sharp pain behind one or both eyes. Many patients report being woken up in the middle of the night because of the intense pain [6].

How to deal: We recommend going to the doctor if you think you’re having a cluster headache. These are some of the most painful types of headaches and episodes can happen frequently over several days or weeks. On the other hand, this type of one-sided pain can also be a symptom of other serious health issues, so it’s better if you’re cleared by a professional.

Once you’ve been diagnosed, you’ll probably have to take medication whenever you feel the onset of the headache. Cluster headaches respond well to oxygen therapy [7], which doesn’t have any side effects. You might want to look into an oxygen cylinder for personal use.

4.      Pain at the top of the head or in the hair band area

This is probably: a tension headache

Symptoms: you’ll feel dull, radiating pain or pressure around the temples, behind the eyes and/or on the forehead. In some cases, you might feel pain at the back of your head or in the neck. Many patients mention that scalp and neck tenderness is one of the first symptoms.

How to deal: Your treatment will depend on whether the tension headaches are chronic or occasional. If you’re already in the chronic stage, medication might be a good way to help. However, lifestyle changes are essential to managing the symptoms.

Because stress is the main factor in this type of headache, patients need to control strong emotions, ensure they get enough sleep and engage in physical exercise.

5.      Nocturnal Headaches without other symptoms

This is probably: Hypnic Headache

Symptoms: general, sharp pain that usually only appears at night, lasting less than 1 hour. These appear alone, and you won’t present any other symptoms. Many patients mention the pain awakens them at the same time every night. Hypnic headaches tend to not respond well to typical medication and might need specific consultation with a medical professional. In general, only people over 50 get this type [9].

How to Deal: The first thing you should do if you think you might suffer from hypnic headache is consult with a medical professional. Since this is a chronic condition, you’ll benefit from keeping a journal to try and detect a pattern. Many patients also report caffeine and melatonin can help ease the symptoms.

6.      Pain behind the eyes, cheeks or forehead

This is probably: a sinus headache

Symptoms: usually related to a stuffy nose, allergic rhinitis or sinus infection. Patients feel pressure behind the eyes, cheeks or forehead. The resulting headache tends to be hard to resolve and lasts about a week.

How to deal: in this case, headaches are secondary to other allergic or sinusitis issues. As such, treating the underlying problem will help you clear up the pain. You could try saline nose drops, warm compresses to help with the pain or decongestants. If the headache doesn’t go away, or the sinusitis persists, talk to a doctor.

7.      Behind the ear or neck

This is probably: an ear infection

Symptoms: sharp pain in or behind the ear. While adults can easily recognize this kind of pain, small children have a harder time and might confuse it with a headache.

How to deal: treat the ear infection and the pain will go away.

Other Headache Types

While these are some of the most common headache causes, they aren’t the only ones. Here are other reasons why you might be getting headaches:

  • Coughing – these are related to sinus headaches, and usually appear alongside other nasal symptoms like a runny nose. The pressure from constant coughing irritates your head’s nerves, and you can get a headache as a result.
  • Dehydration – if you tend to feel throbbing after a workout session or physical work, dehydration might be the cause. Since your brain is composed mostly by water, whenever you aren’t properly hydrated it suffers, compresses into itself and can lead to intense headaches. To avoid it, make sure to drink at least 8 cups of water a day.
  • Spine disorders – this is one of the most common causes for secondary headaches. In this case, the pain is caused by tension or disorders in the cervical spine. In general, people with cervicogenic headaches don’t have actual pain in the neck, but rather chronic headaches that may or may not radiate [8].

When to See a Doctor

We’ve covered some of the most common headache causes. However, only a qualified medical professional can determine the true source of your symptoms.

In general, it’s best to seek medical attention if you suffer from sudden, intense bouts of pain or if you’ve never been diagnosed with a headache disorder. Most headache cases are mild and don’t signal bigger issues. Nevertheless, some serious conditions can cause secondary headaches.

Because of this, it’s best to get an official diagnosis before going ahead with over-the-counter treatments.


  1. Mayo Clinic. Available here.
  2. Engstrøm, M, Hagen, K, Bjørk, MH, Stovner, LJ, Sand, T. Sleep quality and arousal in migraine and tension‐type headache: the headache‐sleep study. Acta Neurol Scand: 2014: 129 ( Suppl. 198): 47– 54. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons A/S. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Available here.
  3. Why Are Some Migraines Caused by Light? The Migraine Institute. Available here.
  4. Headache disorders. World health organization. Available here.
  5. Migraine with aura. Mayo Clinic. Available here.
  6. Cluster headache. Mayo Clinic. Available here.
  7. Bennett, M. H., French, C., Schnabel, A., Wasiak, J., & Kranke, P. (2008). Normobaric and hyperbaric oxygen therapy for migraine and cluster headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3).
  8. Cervicogenic Headache. American migraine foundation. Available here.
  9. Hypnic Headache. Stanford health care. Available here.

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