Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

We’re all familiar with headaches, but we’re probably not all familiar with the same kind of headache. There are actually many different types of headaches that have different symptoms, severity, and remedies. Headaches fall into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are those not caused by another medical condition, whereas secondary headaches are related to a separate medical issue, such as medication side effects, head injury, blood vessel disease, high blood pressure, infection, or tumors. There are four types of primary headaches:

  • Tension headaches
  • Cluster headaches
  • Hypnic headaches
  • Migraines

Headaches are caused for different reasons, and therefore require different types of treatment. Treatment methods for headaches fall into five main categories:

  • Rescue: Treating a headache after its onset, or while symptoms are actively occurring
  • Prevention: Treatment design to stop the headache from developing.
  • Complementary medicine strategies: Finding a medication or combination of medications that minimize or eliminate headaches.
  • Inpatient care: Treatment that is administered by a doctor in a medical facility.
  • Lifestyle changes: Making modifications in lifestyle to minimize or eliminate triggers and factors that contribute to headaches.

There are many ways to treat each type of headache; the best treatment strategies for headaches depend on the individual and the cause of the headache. Here are some of the best treatment options for each type of primary headache:

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and often coexist with migraines, as they can either form from migraines or develop into migraines. This is the typical condition that probably comes to mind when you think “headache”. These headaches are categorized by mild to moderate consistent pain around the temples, forehead, and back of the head. They can last hours to days and are often described as pressure-like in nature. Typical triggers of tension headaches include weather changes, noise or lighting, eye strain, neck and back strain from poor posture, excessive medication use, alcohol use, emotional stress, depression, and changes in sleeping or eating patterns. Here are the most common effective treatments for tension headaches:

  • Physical therapy: Massaging key areas of the head, neck, and back can provide relief, as well as stretching and aligning the body to release muscle tension. This can be done as a rescue or preventative treatment method.
  • Muscle relaxants: Medication can also be used to release tension in the muscles and relieve tension headache pain.
  • OTC pain relievers: Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and aspirin are often used to minimize tension headache pain. Be aware that identifying the source or trigger of the headache allows for more effective preventative strategies.
  • Stress management: If the headache is caused by stress, developing strategies to relax and manage stress will reduce the frequency of tension headaches.

Cluster Headaches

This type of headache typically lasts between 20 minutes and 2 hours, and is sinus-related, categorized by teary eyes and a stuffy nose. Treatment options for cluster headaches include:

  • Injectable medications: These relieve pressure and pain in the sinus area.
  • Prescription nasal sprays: These will open the sinus pathways to relieve pressure and reduce headache pain.
  • Preventative medications: For chronic or ongoing cluster headaches, a preventative medication can be prescribed.
  • Oxygen therapy: As an alternative to medication, breathing pure oxygen via an oxygen mask can relieve cluster headache pain.

Hypnic Headaches

Hypnic headaches most commonly affect post-menopausal women, and only occur during sleep at night, usually occurring around the same time each night. They typically last between 15 and 60 minutes and are categorized by global head pain and no symptoms typical of cluster headaches like tearing and a runny nose. These headaches usually don’t respond to typical headache medicines — treatments for hypnic headaches include:

  • Caffeine
  • Lithium
  • Calcium channel blockers: These increase the oxygen and blood supply to the heart.


Migraines are the second most common type of headache. They are categorized by moderate to severe throbbing pain that can last for multiple days. Migraines are typically chronic, or they occur on a regular basis for the individual. Additionally, most people with migraines have a family history of migraines, suggesting a genetic indicator. While they may be genetic, lifestyle choices typically trigger migraine onset. The causes of migraines are very similar to the causes of tension headaches, so they can be prevented with lifestyle management strategies. Other treatments for migraines include:

  • Resting a dark and quiet room: Minimizing light and sound stimuli often reduce migraine pain.
  • Hot or cold compress: This can be used as a natural remedy for migraine pain.
  • Massage: Similarly to tension headaches, relaxing the muscles and reducing stress can relieve symptoms.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: Migraines can be related to depression, so antidepressants can be used as a preventative medication.

TMS: Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a promising option for individuals with chronic migraines. This non-invasive treatment involves transmitting magnetic pulses into specific areas of the brain to stimulate neural activity. TMS is administered by a professional in a clinic; patients attend 5 sessions per week for 2 – 3 weeks, and many individuals see long-term migraine relief after treatment.