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Understanding Different Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

Headaches come in various forms, including migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches, each requiring different treatment approaches. Here's how to recognize each type and manage them effectively.


Migraines are severe, pulsating headaches that can occur regularly, sometimes several times a month. They may be preceded by an aura, where individuals experience blind spots, shimmering spots, or flashes of light. Migraines typically affect one side of the head or occur behind the eye and can last for days, with routine physical activity often exacerbating the pain.

Some migraines may present with stroke-like symptoms, such as numbness on one side of the body, more commonly seen in older adults who experienced migraines in their youth.

"If it's properly diagnosed as a migraine, there are several levels of intervention," said Messmer in a Penn State news release.

For mild migraines, over-the-counter painkillers like aspirin or ibuprofen and resting in a dark room may provide relief. For frequent migraines, doctors may prescribe stronger medications, including triptans or calcitonin gene-related peptide receptor blockers, which are most effective when taken at the onset of a headache. While the exact cause of migraines is unknown, triggers can include alcohol, certain foods, and hormonal changes in women.

Tension Headaches

Tension-type headaches can occur in any part of the head and often feel like pressure, sometimes spreading to the neck. These headaches are not necessarily caused by life stress or muscular tension. Instead, anxiety, anger, excessive alcohol or coffee consumption, and poor posture can trigger them.

"One of the things a physician should be determining is what the problem is and then fixing that problem," Messmer explained. If lifestyle factors like excessive coffee intake or lack of sleep are contributing, addressing these issues can help.

Infrequent tension headaches can usually be alleviated with Tylenol or ibuprofen. For chronic tension headaches, a riboflavin supplement, regular exercise, stretching, and relaxation therapy may be beneficial.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are vascular headaches, meaning they involve blood vessels. They are less common and typically affect men. The intense pain usually occurs on one side of the head and around the eye.

The same medications used to treat migraines, such as triptans, can be effective for cluster headaches, and oxygen therapy is also helpful.

When to See a Doctor

Regardless of the type, if headaches are interfering with your work, education, or relationships, it's crucial to consult a doctor. "It's unique to everybody," Messmer said. "For some people, one headache a week is OK. For another, one headache a year is too much."

If you've never had headaches and they suddenly become frequent, it's essential to see a doctor. Migraines often begin in the teen years; if they start later in life, medical advice is necessary.

If a headache is accompanied by blurry vision or inability to use a limb, it is an emergency situation. Call 911 or have someone take you to the hospital immediately.

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