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 . 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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 .
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:
This is probably: Migraine with aura
Symptoms: very similar to those of a plain migraine, but paired with what experts call sensory disturbances . 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.
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 .
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 , which doesn’t have any side effects. You might want to look into an oxygen cylinder for personal use.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.