Headache Types and Treatments


How to Identify and Treat Headaches

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Not all headaches are created equal. Learn about the many different types of headaches and headache treatments that will provide relief.

At some point, most of us will experience the sometimes debilitating and always irritating effects of a headache.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of headache who's who's, there are some things you can do immediately to stave off a headache.

  1. Let down your locks. Seriously. Tight ponytails, braids, headbands, and even swim goggles can send you down the rabbit hole.
  2. And brace yourself for this one—caffeine, cheese, and chocolate are BIG migraine triggers.
  3. Too much or too little sleep is another common cause.
  4. And let's not forget stress.
  5. Get some exercise—even a brisk walk—or engage in an activity that allows you to decompress.

And, most important, consult your doctor if headaches are becoming a chronic problem.

Now let's look at treatments headache by headache:

Types of Headaches

While some headaches are tolerable and easily remedied with over-the-counter medications, others hold you prisoner until they're ready to subside. What's worse, they return unannounced and wreak havoc (like a dreaded in-law) on daily life. Knowing the type of headache that you're experiencing can help you to figure out how to treat it. 


According to the American Migraine Foundation, approximately 36 million Americans suffer from migraines. This is no run-of-the-mill headache, and it can be hereditary (thank your parents for this lovely gene). Many sufferers report an aura that precedes the onset of migraine and is your body's way of saying "Brace yourself!" Aura can include seeing dots and lightning bolt–type lines, numbness or tingling on one side of the body, or sudden speech impediments. Vomiting and light sensitivity further add to the fun.

Massage might take the edge off. Try rubbing your temples. Better yet, have someone do it for you and include your neck, head, back, and shoulders. Cold packs applied to the temples may also help.

And run away from the light! Bright light can aggravate a migraine. Also try over-the-counter pain meds and cross your fingers. If meds aren't your thing, acupuncture has been shown to be as effective as medicine. If all else fails, you may have to just ride it out in a dark, quiet room.   

Read more tips on our Migraine Headache page.

Tension Headaches

The most common type of headache, tension headaches are characterized by a pressure that wraps around the head. Unlike migraines, they are not made worse by physical activity and sufferers are usually able to go about their daily lives.  

Relax! Try a little deep breathing or listen to relaxing music to help you unwind. Over-the-counter painkillers and caffeine are often effective, but repeated use can trigger rebound headaches.

Rebound Headaches

Now called "medication overuse headaches," rebound headaches result from frequent use of pain meds and caffeine, which physicians believe interfere with the body's pain sensors by decreasing pain tolerance. The result? Another headache. Sheesh!

Eliminate the offending medication. The downside: Headaches can sometimes get worse before they get better. If going "cold turkey" isn't a safe option, doctors will wean patients off the meds to avoid any dangerous health risks.  

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headache is one of the most common complaints and is characterized by sinus pressure and congestion. The cause can be either viral, bacterial, or allergy-related.

If it's bacterial, antibiotics can usually resolve it within a week. Allergy sufferers may benefit from an antihistamine or flushing the sinuses with a neti pot (always use distilled or sterilized water with a neti pot; never use tap water).

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches, sometimes referred to as "suicide headaches," are a real picnic and are the most painful. They're more common in men. Pain often occurs around the eyes, temples, back of the head, or in combination in all of these areas. Swollen eyes and tearing, facial sweating, nasal congestion, and restlessness are among the many symptoms that can accompany an attack.

Acupressure and acupuncture may bring relief. Join a yoga class and learn meditation skills to help with relaxation. Low magnesium is a common link among headache suffers, so upping your intake of magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, almonds, chard, and banana could help. 

Ice Pick Headaches

Also known as stabbing headaches, these involve sudden brief bursts of intense pain, often lasting no more than a few seconds. They're more common among migraine sufferers, who report experiencing the pain before the onset of a migraine in the same area.

How do you medicate a flash of pain? Good question. You may have to just grin and bear it. In other words, keep calm and carry on. 

Do you have any tips for getting rid of a headache? Let us know in the comments!

Read the Almanac's article on folk remedies for headaches. (This is more to make you smile than a cure-all!)

About The Author

Heather Blackmore

Heather Blackmore tends a perennial and vegetable garden in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. She writes about her garden successes, failures, and observations on her blog. Read More from Heather Blackmore

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