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Are There Different Types of Headaches?

Most people think a headache is a headache, but there are more than 150 distinct headache types, and they all require a different treatment approach. 

One thing they all have in common is that they cause pain, and when it comes to pain, Dr. Dinash Yanamadula is the go-to expert in New Jersey. With Princeton Pain & Spine Institute offices in Lawrenceville and Edgewater, he helps headache sufferers throughout the state find much-needed relief. 

If you have chronic headaches you can’t resolve, you may be treating the wrong type. Here’s an overview of some of the most common headache types.

Headache 101: Types and causes

Headaches are a common complaint among patients worldwide, with studies indicating that approximately 15.8% of the global population experience a headache on any given day. They are among the most prevalent and disabling conditions, affecting roughly one out of every six Americans. 

Understanding the nature of headaches, their types, and their causes is the only way to achieve an accurate diagnosis and get the right treatment. Headaches are broadly classified into two categories: primary and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches

Primary headaches are standalone illnesses caused directly by the overactivity of, or problems with, pain-sensitive structures in your head. This category includes migraines, cluster headaches, thunderclap headaches, and tension-type headaches, among others.

Migraines cause intense, throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. The exact cause of migraines isn’t known, but they’re likely the result of abnormal brain activity affecting nerve signals, chemicals, and blood vessels in the brain.

Cluster headaches are severe headaches that occur in a series or cycle and may strike when your body suddenly releases histamine or serotonin. They cause excruciating pain, often around one eye, and can cause that eye to tear and redden. 

Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, delivering a sudden and severe pain that reaches its peak intensity within 60 seconds and can last an hour or more. Several conditions can cause them, most commonly subarachnoid hemorrhage, a life-threatening type of stroke.

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of primary headaches. They feel like a constant ache affecting both sides of your head as if a tight band is stretched around it. Stress is the primary driver of tension-type headaches.

Dr. Yanamadula treats primary headaches according to their root cause. He may recommend prescription medication, lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, or other pain-relieving modalities.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches aren't conditions themselves but symptoms. They pop up when some other condition affects the pain-sensitive nerves in your head. You’ve probably heard of a few common ones, like hormonal headaches, exertion headaches, allergy headaches, medication-overuse headaches, hypertension headaches, post-traumatic headaches, and those pesky headaches linked to spinal issues.

Ever have a headache that seems to sync with your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or menopause? That's probably a hormonal headache, courtesy of your fluctuating estrogen levels.

Then, there are exertion headaches, the ones that show up after you’ve really pushed yourself physically. They can hang around for a few minutes to a couple of hours, thumping away on both sides of your head while your heart races.

If you’re sneezing, your eyes are watering, and your nose is running, you might have an allergy headache. It’s your body’s response to an allergic reaction, and it can feel a lot like a sinus headache, with pressure in your forehead, cheeks, and between your eyes.

Medication-overuse headaches, or rebound headaches, are a bit ironic. They’re the result of taking too many pain relievers. Instead of making things better, they actually cause more frequent and intense headaches over time. You’ll need to get some medical help to manage them.

Hypertension headaches are tied to high blood pressure. They usually feel like throbbing pain on both sides of your head, and they often come with extra symptoms like chest pain, changes in vision, or shortness of breath.

If you’ve had a head or neck injury, you might experience post-traumatic headaches. They can feel like migraines or tension-type headaches and stick around for months after your injury. These often need a specialized treatment plan.

Last but not least are headaches related to spinal complications. Whether it’s inflammation, tight muscles, pinched nerves, or aftermath from a procedure like a lumbar puncture, these headaches get worse when you’re standing or sitting and better when you’re lying down.

Treating the condition causing your secondary headaches usually resolves the headache symptoms.  

However, understanding the root cause of a headache is the first and most important step for effective treatment. If you experience frequent or severe headaches, request an appointment online or call Princeton Pain & Spine Institute to identify your headache source and start treatment.

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