Headache 101: Types, Causes, Remedy, Medicine & Prevention

Learn more about the different types of headache and its symptoms, causes, prevention, home remedies and treatment.

by Lorraine Bunag, R.N.

What is a Headache?

A headache is a sensed pain felt in any area of the head, face, as well as the upper neck. Some people think that when they experience a headache, their brain is hurting. However, according to experts, the brain itself is not capable of feeling pain because it has no nerves. Instead, the pain arises from any nerve, blood vessel, or tissue in the areas surrounding the skull and upper neck.

Headaches could be described in a number of ways, like throbbing, dull, or sharp. In most cases, you’d only have an idea as to why you start having headaches, but wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly what caused them, since reasons could be anything from sleep deprivation to cancer

Generally, mild headaches that don’t often happen do not need aggressive treatment; you can rely on home remedies, such as pain relievers, relaxation techniques, and massage. However, when headaches occur intensely and frequently, you need to consult a doctor to get proper assessment and appropriate management.

Headache Symptoms

Like mentioned earlier, people describe headaches in different ways. When you experience headaches, you may feel:

  • A pain or pressure in one or both sides of the head.
  • A pain or pressure in a particular point that radiates.
  • A sharp, throbbing, or dull pain.
  • Like something is gripping your head (vise-like band)
  • It happens gradually or suddenly.
  • It lasts for a few minutes to a few days.


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Types of Headaches

Before we discuss the different headache causes, let’s first talk about the types of headache. You see, the causes often vary depending on the type of headache a person experiences.

There are two main types of headaches: primary and secondary.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches happen because there is an over activity or problem in the pain-sensitive structures in the head, face, and upper neck; they are usually not a symptom of an underlying condition.

Under the primary types of headaches, we have the following subtypes:

Tension Headache

A tension headache is the most common type of headache that people experience. Due to the prevalence, some people also call it the “everyday headaches.”

While each person feels a tension headache differently, generally, it could be described as:

  • Consistent but not a throbbing headache.
  • Mild to moderate.
  • Bilateral, which means you could feel it on both sides of the head.
  • A headache that worsens with certain physical activities, like climbing the stairs or bending down.
  • A headache that often gets better with medicines.

A tension headache doesn’t usually trigger other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.

According to experts, there are two types of tension headaches: episodic, which happens in less than 15 days a month, and chronic, where the days you experience tension headaches outnumber the headache-free days.  

Cluster Headache

Another one under the primary types of headache is cluster headache. Some people describe a cluster headache as the “worst kind” of headaches. They are called cluster headaches because they happen in clusters or groups, which range from 1 to 8 times a day for a period of two weeks to three months.

A cluster headache usually feels:

  • Intense; you might feel a stabbing or burning sensation.
  • Focused on one of the eyes or area around an eye; often, the pain doesn’t switch sides.
  • Constant or throbbing headache.

Migraine Headache

Many people are familiar with migraine headaches as they are the second most common types of headache next to tension headaches. Usually, migraine headaches:

  • Are moderate to severe.
  • Feel like a pounding or throbbing headache.
  • Come with other symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.
  • Last for four hours to three days.
  • Could be triggered by light, noise, or odors.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headache types occur due to another condition or issue that triggers the pain-sensitive structures in the head, face, and upper neck. The severity of the underlying condition varies, from a common sinus infection that causes a sinus headache, to the presence of a brain tumor.

The other conditions that might trigger secondary headaches are:

  • Respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold or flu.
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Dental or jaw problems
  • Dehydration
  • High blood pressure
  • Overuse of medications
  • Concussion
  • Stroke
  • Meningitis

Headache Causes and Triggers

Now that we have a better idea of the symptoms and types of headaches, lets’ cover the causes.

Like mentioned earlier, there are many possible reasons why people experience headaches. For instance: primary headaches may occur after particular activities, such as exercise or sex. Interestingly, even simple things that you do excessively could lead to headaches (e.g., coughing).

Of course, lifestyle factors also contribute to the occurrence of headaches:

  • Alcohol consumption, particularly red wine.
  • Poor posture.
  • Exercise where you might experience a headache after running. Please note that a headache after exercise could also be a secondary headache if the patient has an underlying health condition that triggers headache after prolonged or strenuous activities.  
  • Sleep deprivation or changes in sleep routine
  • Headache caused by stress could be categorized into different types of headache, but most commonly it is a tension or migraine headache.
  • Skipping meals
  • Certain foods, like processed meats that contain nitrates.
  • Menstruation where the decrease in the hormone estrogen just before a woman’s period may result in migraines; headache during menstruation is also possible. 

Finally, let’s not forget that secondary headaches may result from another issue or health condition that activates the pain-sensitive structures of the head, face and upper neck. Since we already talked about some of the conditions that might result in secondary type headaches, let’s enumerate the other potential headache triggers:

  • Pressure-causing headgear
  • Cold drinks or ice cream (brain freeze)
  • Medication overuse   

When Should I Worry About A Headache?

In most cases, headaches, especially a tension headache, is nothing to worry about, especially if they are mild, last only for a couple of minutes or hours, and don’t occur frequently.

But when should you seek medical help for headaches? According to reports, you need to seek medical attention right away if your headache:

  • Occurs suddenly, feels very severe, and you’re experiencing this kind of headache for the first time.
  • Comes with the signs of stroke, such as a droopy smile and inability to raise your arms.
  • Comes with fever and stiff neck (this could be a sign of meningitis).
  • Comes with signs of severe dehydration or heat stroke.
  • Happens after a head injury due to a fall, blow, or bump. 
  • Happens after a suspected poisoning through physical contact, ingestion, or inhalation of a poisonous plant, animal, food, drink, or gas.

Headache Locations

Sometimes, it’s possible to determine the type of headache by assessing the location where the pain is focused. Below are the most common headache locations and their potential meanings:

Headache on one side of head

If you feel a headache at the right or left side of the head, you might be experiencing migraine. Cluster headaches also tend to affect one side of the head. Finally, a type of headache called cervicogenic headache also triggers pain on one side of the face and neck. Cervicogenic headaches could also trigger a stiff neck or pain around the eyes.

Headache at the back of head 

Headache at the back of the head could indicate neck problems due to arthritis or bad posture.

Headache affecting the entire head

A headache affecting the entire head usually feels like there’s a tight band on your head. This is a typical characteristic of tension headaches.

Headache affecting the frontal part

Headache at the front part of the head could be due to allergies if the pain is anywhere near the nasal passages. Similarly, it could also be a sinus headache. If you feel pain behind your eyes, your headache could be due to eyestrain.

Headache Diagnosis

Most people only visit the doctor for recurring headaches. Since headache is highly subjective, the doctor relies heavily on the description provided by the patient. And because many factors come into play for why headaches happen, the doctor will take the following into consideration to reach a diagnosis:

Headache locations

  • Intensity of the pain
  • Frequency and duration of the pain
  • Other symptoms that happen along with the headache
  • Nature of recurrence, such as, is it triggered by certain activity, food, etc.
  • Factors that relieve the pain
  • Depending on what the doctor thinks your condition is, they might recommend other laboratory and imaging tests for confirmation.

Headache Treatment

When the doctor determines the root cause of the headache, then he or she would treat the “original” problem first. Generally, though, the cause of ordinary headaches that happen only from time to time is difficult to determine.

If you’re worried about headaches but feel as though it’s not an emergency that warrants a hospital visit, consider telemedicine services. Similarly, you could book an appointment to have a House Call Doctor visit you at home.

Headache Medicine

The way that people deal with headaches varies: some let it run its course; others want immediate relief because headaches make it hard for them to focus on their tasks. Should you find yourself in the situation where you want to take a painkiller, here are some reminders about headache medicines:

The expert’s choices when it comes to headache medicines are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS and acetaminophen or paracetamol. The first is more powerful since it can ease inflammation.

The strength of over-the-counter pain relievers is somewhat less important. However, it would be best to take the medicine as soon as the headache emerges.

As much as possible, don’t take painkillers more than twice or thrice in a week, as this could result in side-effects, such as medication overuse headaches or rebound headaches.

Some supplements may help with headaches. For instance, some reports say people with migraine might have low levels of magnesium in their brain. Similarly, those who want to prevent headaches may consider other supplements, such as vitamin B2, coenzyme Q10 (Co-Q10), and omega-3 fatty acids.


Please do not self-medicate. If you feel the need to take medicines because you have intense or recurring headaches, seek a healthcare professional first.

How To Cure Headache with Home Remedies

If you have reservations in taking medicines for mild and infrequent headaches, consider thinking back on what could have possibly caused your headache. Are you stressed? Do you lack sleep? Are you taking a new medicine? Identifying such factors would make it easier for you to address the headache.

Below are some of the potential headache cures that do not require medicines:


Massaging the head, particularly the area that throbs, often helps get rid of the headache.

Some reports also indicate that massaging the Hegu pressure point is helpful. You could find the Hegu point between the bases of your thumb and middle finger. Simply press on the point using circular motion for about five minutes before switching hands. Don’t forget to press firmly, but not too hard that it hurts.

Heat and Cold Compress

Another headache remedy is heat or cold compress. This is especially the choice when you know that your headache happened due to tight or contracted muscles, particularly in the neck area.

When doing heat or cold compress, remember to protect your skin. Always wrap the heat or frozen pad with a towel and avoid more than 10 minutes of application at a time. Also, never fall asleep with the compress on your head or neck.

Relaxation Techniques

Do you think that your headache occurred due to stress? If that’s the case, consider doing relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, stretching, yoga, or meditation.

Sometimes, taking a few minutes off the task you’re currently working on helps, too. Find a quiet place to empty your mind, sit down, and then take deep breaths.


Are you perhaps sleep deprived? Usually, people who lack sleep and experience headaches, also feel that their eyes are hurting and heavy.

If you are able, take a much-needed shuteye even for a few minutes to ease the headache and the heaviness in your eyes.

Additional Things You Can Do To Cure Headache Fast

Besides the above mentioned headache remedies, you can also consider the following steps:

Take off pressure on the head

If you’re wearing a tight headband or your hair is pulled tight, consider removing the band or tie for a while and then readjust, so they’re not too constricting.

Adjust the lighting in the room 

If it’s too bright, turn off the lights in the meantime. If you can dim the lights, consider doing that, too.


Remember that dehydration sometimes causes headaches.

Drink ginger tea

One study discovered that ginger powder has similar effects as common migraine medication.

Get moving

Staying physically active helps keep the blood flowing smoothly. In fact, a team of researchers found that having too little physical activity could contribute to headache occurrences in teenagers.

Try aromatherapy

Some people find relief in inhaling essential oils, like lavender oil.


If ever you decide to use herbal teas or aromatherapy, check in with your doctor first. While the two practices are generally safe, it’s still best to consult a physician, especially if you’re taking medications or have respiratory conditions.

Headache Prevention

Finally, let’s discuss prevention. On many occasions, a person wouldn’t know when a headache would occur, so prevention is quite difficult. Still, there are possible ways to reduce the risk of experiencing headaches.

Avoid headache triggers

The first thing you could do is to avoid things that might cause headaches to happen. Examples include bright lights, fatigue, tight headbands or hair ties.

Stay healthy

Another headache prevention strategy is to practice things that keep you healthy, like having a balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate rest and sleep. As much as possible, don’t skip meals and always keep yourself hydrated.

Manage stress

Keep stress at manageable levels by taking frequent breaks and allotting several days in a month for yourself. Don’t forget to prioritize tasks and ask for help when necessary.

Be careful with medications

Remember that overusing medicines could result in rebound headaches. If you find the need for medicines for more than 3 days, then it’s time to set an appointment with your doctor.

Key Takeaways

Headaches are common among people of any age. They happen when there’s an issue with the pain-sensitive structures in the face, neck, and upper neck. Sometimes, these structures are activated, too, because of underlying conditions.

In most cases, headaches are not a cause of concern, but there are instances when they signify a more serious problem. If you have recurring headaches, especially intense ones, it would be best to talk to your doctor.

The most common way that people find relief from headaches is through painkillers, acetaminophen or NSAIDs. Other possible ways to cure headaches are massage therapy, hydration, relaxation techniques, and hot and cold compress.

Finally, to prevent headaches, be sure to avoid known triggers, stay healthy, and avoid medication overuse that could trigger rebound headaches.

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About the Writer
Lorraine Bunag, R.N.
Lorraine is a registered nurse who spends most of her time writing informative articles on health and wellness. At the end of the day, she relaxes by reading a book or watching documentaries about unsolved mysteries.
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