A headache may affect one or more areas of the head, and the pain can vary in severity, duration, and frequency.

There are many types of headache, and they may require professional care. Sometimes, this is because they stem from an underlying health condition.

Below, learn about the different types of headache, including their causes and other symptoms.

Infographic showing the locations of different headache typesShare on Pinterest
Infographic by Diego Sabogal

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost half of all adults experience a headache at least once a year.

A headache results from inflammation in pain-sensitive parts of the head and neck. These areas include the:

  • nerves
  • muscles
  • blood vessels

The International Headache Society classifies more than 150 types of headache. More broadly, doctors recognize two categories: primary and secondary headaches.

When someone has a primary headache, the headache itself is the main concern — it is not a symptom of an underlying problem. A secondary headache results from a different health issue.

These are sometimes called “tension-type” headaches. They result from muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, scalp, or jaw.

Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. Globally, around 46–78% of people experience one at some point. They often start during a person’s teenage years.

Symptoms and location

Tension headaches typically involve a pressing, dull pain. People sometimes refer to these as “hatband” headaches because the pain typically occurs around the back of the head, the temples, and the forehead, almost as if a tight hat is squeezing the head.

The pain is usually mild to moderate but not severe. It often comes on without warning, and can last from a few hours to several days.

Tension-type headaches can coexist with migraine, and one may trigger the other.

Causes

Researchers believe that tension headaches may occur in response to both genetic and environmental factors.

The most common cause is stress. Other possible causes include:

  • a lack of sleep
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • skipping meals
  • alcohol use

Learn more about tension headaches.

Migraine affects approximately 1 billion people worldwide. It can cause a moderate-to-severe primary headache that typically occurs on one side of the head. The pain and other symptoms can keep a person from doing their daily activities.

Migraine is more common among females than males. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women were twice as likely as men to experience migraine or a severe headache in the past 3 months.

Symptoms and location

During a migraine episode, a person may have moderate-to-severe throbbing or pulsing pain on one side of their head. The pain may last 4–72 hours and worsen with physical activity.

Some people experience migraine with aura. An aura is a set of sensory symptoms, which may include:

  • seeing bright or flashing lights
  • seeing geometric patterns
  • having auditory hallucinations
  • having numbness or tingling sensations

Other symptoms of migraine can include:

Causes

Experts believe that migraine may have a genetic cause, since the condition tends to run in families.

Other factors that could trigger it include:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • hormone changes in females
  • bright or flashing lights
  • tobacco use
  • caffeine and alcohol consumption
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • strong smells
  • certain foods, such as:
    • chocolate
    • matured cheeses
    • processed meats

Learn more about migraine.

Cluster headaches are a less common type of primary headache, affecting fewer than 1 in 1,000 adults, as the WHO reports.

The organization also notes that these headaches are more common in men than women and typically develop in or after a person’s 20s.

Symptoms and location

Cluster headaches typically involve recurrent, boring, burning, or piercing pain, typically behind or around one eye. The pain tends to be severe and may last between 20 minutes and 2 hours. It usually occurs at night.

Cluster headaches can be episodic or chronic. Episodic cluster headaches occur repeatedly over 2 weeks to 3 months. A person may not have another for months or years.

Chronic cluster headaches persist for more than a year without a remission — or with a remission shorter than 3 months.

Other symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • eye redness or watering
  • drooping or swelling of the eyelid
  • reduced pupil size in one eye
  • facial sweating
  • a runny or blocked nose
  • restlessness

Up to 33% of people with cluster headaches may also experience nerve pain.

Causes

The cause of cluster headaches is not yet clear. However, they may result from dysfunction in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is involved in several physical functions.

Cluster headaches often develop in people who smoke.

Learn more about cluster headaches.

This is also called a rebound headache, and it is the most common type of secondary headache.

A medication overuse headache results from the regular use of pain relief medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and opiates. It typically develops in people who have been taking large doses of pain relievers for at least 3 months.

For someone with a medication overuse headache, the pain is typically dull and constant, occurring on most days. The location of the pain varies from person to person.

Other possible symptoms include:

The sinuses are a network of air-filled cavities in the skull. The main sinuses sit inside the forehead, cheekbones, and nasal cavity. A sinus headache is a secondary headache, and the pain affects one or more of these areas.

Sinus headaches are usually a symptom of a sinus infection, and this type of infection is often bacterial.

Other possible symptoms of a sinus infection include:

Learn more about sinus headaches.

This is a secondary headache that occurs in response to head trauma.

Post-traumatic headaches are the most common acute symptom after a traumatic brain injury. Experts estimate that around 18–58% of people with this type of brain injury experience a post-traumatic headache within the next year. However, the headache usually develops 7 days after the injury.

A post-traumatic headache is often mild to moderate, and the pain may be pressing or dull. It frequently occurs in the:

  • temples
  • forehead
  • neck

Less often, the headache may occur at the back and top of the head and around the eyes.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • impaired cognitive function
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • urinary incontinence

Different types of headache can cause different types of pain. Headache pain also varies in severity, duration, and frequency.

There are two broad categories of headache: primary and secondary, depending on whether the headache is the primary concern or whether it results from another health condition.

Anyone with new or more frequent headaches should contact a healthcare professional. It is especially important to receive medical care for any headache that occurs with concerning symptoms or is severe or otherwise keeps a person from their daily activities.