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Understanding Different Types of Headaches

a woman holding her head with both hands.
Understanding different types of headaches can be, well, a headache. Headaches are a common condition that can cause discomfort and disrupt daily life. There are many different types of headaches, each with their own set of symptoms and causes. Understanding the different types of headaches and their causes can help individuals manage their symptoms and prevent future occurrences. In this blog post, we’ll provide an overview of the most common types of headaches and their associated causes, as well as tips for managing and preventing headaches.

Types of Headaches

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are often described as a constant, dull pain or pressure around the forehead, temples, or back of the head. They are usually caused by muscle tension or contraction in the head and neck region.

Tension headaches can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress, anxiety, poor posture, and fatigue. Many people experience tension headaches as a result of sitting at a desk for long periods or engaging in activities that require prolonged concentration, such as reading or using a computer. Stress-related headaches and neck pain are also common triggers for tension headaches.

In addition to dull or aching pain, tension headaches may also cause sensitivity to light and sound, and mild nausea. Some people may experience a frontal headache, which is a type of tension headache that is focused in the front of the head.


Migraines are a type of headache that is characterized by a severe, throbbing pain usually on one side of the head. They are often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines can last for hours or even days and can significantly impact daily activities.

Migraines are typically characterized by a pulsating or throbbing pain that is usually on one side of the head. The pain may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people may also experience visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines before the onset of the headache.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a rare but extremely painful type of headache that occurs in cyclical patterns or clusters, hence the name. They are characterized by severe pain on one side of the head, usually behind or around the eye, and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 180 minutes a time according to May et al 2018. Cluster headaches are often described as one of the most painful types of headaches.

Cluster headaches are often described as a burning or piercing pain (described as ice pick headache) that is focused around one eye or on one side of the head. Other symptoms may include tearing of the eye, nasal congestion, and restlessness or agitation.

Cluster headaches often occur in cycles, with periods of intense headache pain followed by periods of remission. These cycles can last for weeks or months at a time, and some people may experience cluster headaches at the same time each year.

Cervicogenic Headaches

Cervicogenic headaches are a type of headache that is caused by pain in the neck and cervical spine. These headaches typically start in the neck and then radiate up to the head, causing pain and discomfort. Cervicogenic headaches can be difficult to diagnose as the pain is often felt in the head, but they can be effectively treated with the right approach. Common complaints of cervicogenic headaches include: severe pain at base of head and neck, pain in the neck, pain that radiates into the shoulder or arm, dizziness and visual disturbances.

It’s important to work with a healthcare professional to properly diagnose and treat cervicogenic headaches, as they can be difficult to distinguish from other types of headaches such as migraines or tension headaches. Understanding the root cause of the headaches is critical and can expedite the recovery time.

Cervicogenic headaches are often associated with neck and shoulder pain, as well as headache dizziness and visual disturbances. This is because the nerves in the neck and cervical spine are closely connected to the nerves in the head and can cause referred pain or other symptoms. If you experience cervicogenic headaches frequently or they are severe, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider to determine the underlying cause and develop an effective treatment plan.

Causes of Headaches

Headaches can be caused by a variety of factors, ranging from stress and anxiety to poor sleep habits, diet, and dehydration. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most common causes of headaches.

When you’re under stress, your muscles tend to tense up, including those in your neck and scalp. This tension can lead to headaches that are characterized by a dull, aching pain that feels like a tight band around your head.

Managing stress and anxiety can help reduce the frequency and intensity of tension headaches. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can all help to reduce tension in your muscles and promote relaxation.

Poor sleep habits, such as not getting enough sleep or having an irregular sleep schedule, can also contribute to headaches. Lack of sleep can cause changes in brain chemistry that can trigger headaches, and it can also lead to muscle tension in the neck and scalp.

To improve your sleep habits and reduce the likelihood of headaches, try to establish a regular sleep schedule and practice good sleep hygiene. This includes things like avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.

When to Seek Help

If you experience frequent headaches that are severe, interfere with your daily activities, or don’t respond to over-the-counter medications, it’s a good idea to see a doctor. They can help you identify the underlying cause of your headaches and develop a treatment plan to manage them. Physical Therapy can help with some headaches, we review how here.

In addition, if you have a history of migraines or other types of headaches and notice a significant increase in the frequency or severity of your symptoms, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine if there are any new underlying conditions that need to be addressed.

Remember, if you’re ever unsure whether to see a doctor for your headaches, it’s always better to error on the side of caution and seek medical attention.


Headaches are a common ailment that can be caused by a variety of factors. While most headaches can be managed with self-care strategies and over-the-counter medications, there are times when it’s important to seek medical attention to rule out more serious underlying conditions.

If you experience frequent or severe headaches that interfere with your daily activities, or if you have any of the red flag symptoms, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider. They can help you identify the underlying cause of your headaches and develop a treatment plan to manage them.

By understanding the different types of headaches and their causes, you can take steps to reduce the frequency and intensity of your headaches and improve your overall quality of life. Whether it’s through stress management techniques, improving your sleep habits, or making changes to your diet and hydration, there are many ways to manage headaches and feel your best.


Dr. Tyler is a physical therapist and founder Scottsdale Physical Therapy & Performance in North Scottsdale, Arizona. He see golfers, MMA athletes and active adults. His focus is offering one-on-one sessions for 1 hour focused on developing individualized programs to get you back to your goals.

If you have any questions about online programing or want to stop in for a visit, please reach out by hitting “request appointment” in the top of the page.

– Dr. Tyler PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, TPI-2

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