Types Of Headache And When To Go To A Doctor


Headache can be quite debilitating. It can be triggered by something as simple as a chatty colleague at work or the noise of an exhaust fan in your kitchen. Whatever is the trigger, you need to know about the types of headache and watch out for signs that indicate you consult a doctor immediately. Here’s more about headache you need to know.

Are there different types of headache?

Yes. A headache is classified into four major categories based on the causes or triggers. These are:

-Tension Headache

-Migraine Headache

-Chronic Headache

-Cluster Headache

Tension headache: It is one of the most common type of headache. As the name suggests, it is usually accompanied by stress or tension. It is easily diagnosable and resolves within days to weeks with medicines as recommended by your doctor. The common symptoms of tension headache are:

-Feeling of a tight band around the head or neck

-Mild to moderate pain that is stable and not worsening following an activity

-Tenderness (pain when applying pressure) in and around the muscles of the head, neck and shoulders

-Severity of pain can increase or decrease over time

Migraine headache: This is a type of headache that causes mild to severe pain and  usually worsens by exposure to light, noise or motion. In some cases, even the smell of a food such as coffee can worsen the pain. It usually lasts for few hours but can also last for few days. It could be a migraine headache if you show symptoms such as:

-Nausea and vomiting along with headache

-Severe pain which worsens on exposure to triggers such as light, loud noise, motion, smell, etc.

-Headache that is restricted to just one side of the head

Cluster headache: This type of headache affects less than a percent of people and is relatively rare. However, it can lead to severe headache that can happen for days to months, followed by a short period of no headache. As it happens in patterns or cluster, it is named as cluster headache. You might have a cluster headache, if the headache:

-Occurs without any warning and reaches its peak within few minutes.

-Is deep and occurs many times a day but in short intervals

-Begins around the eyes and temple

-Pain is restricted to one side and can also cause sensitivity to light on the affected side.

-May cause redness of the eyes and tears along with stuffy nose and sweating

Chronic headache: If you have frequent headaches which presents for more than 15 days a month and lasts for at least 3 months, then it is called as chronic headache. This type of headache starts off as a migraine headache or tension headache but becomes frequent over time. For people who use headache medicines too often, it can also lead to medication-overuse headache.

When to go to a doctor?

You should go to a doctor if:

-You get headache too often or for a long period of time (chronic headache)

-Your headaches are severe

-Your headache fails to subside with home care

-Your headache interferes with normal activities

-Sudden headache which worsens in no time

-Headache following a head injury

Do consult a doctor if you have other signs and symptoms along with headache such as:

-Fever and stiff neck

-Seizures, confusion or blackouts

-Weakness or numbness

-Difficulty in vision

What you can do to prevent headache at home?

Keep a headache calendar as it helps you to keep a tab on what you ate or what you did that might have possibly triggered a headache.

Stay away from the common triggers of headache such as alcohol, caffeine, skipping meals, lack of sleep, eating cheese or eating too little.

Try relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga as these can help you to manage stress and relieve headache-induced by stress.

Do not always pop a painkiller as the right medicine for headache depends on the type of headache, how often you get them and how severe it is.

Bottomline: Headache can be due to stress or it can be an underlying symptom of brain tumour. It is not always possible to know the type of headache based on the symptoms you experience. This is when your doctor might advise investigations like CT-scan or imaging techniques to know the root cause of it and treat the condition. Hence, do consult your doctor if you have frequent headaches and not self-medicate always.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, Consultant Pharmacologist)

Recommended Reads:

Cluster Headache: Triggers, Symptoms And Treatment Options

6 Practical Ways To Manage Headache


Dodick DW. Clinical practice. Chronic daily headache. N Engl J Med 2006; 354:158.

Levine HL, Setzen M, Cady RK, et al. An otolaryngology, neurology, allergy, and primary care consensus on diagnosis and treatment of sinus headache. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2006; 134:516.

Silberstein SD. Practice parameter: evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache (an evidence-based review): report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology 2000; 55:754.

Caudill MA. Managing Pain Before It Manages You, 3rd Edition, Guilford Press, New York 2009.

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