Headaches aren’t created equal. The pain can be dull and constant, throbbing or searing. They can be annoying, disabling — or, rarely — the sign of a life-threatening medical problem. Knowing which kind of headache you have can help you get treatment and relief.

About 80 percent of adults suffer from headaches at least occasionally , said Dr. Laurie Knepper, an associate professor of neurology at the University Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a physician with the University of Pittsburgh’s Headache Center.

Tension headaches

By far the most common reason for head pain, headache tension type tend to be mild and short-lived.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain involves the whole head, not just one side.
  • Mild pain which is often described an aching pressure.
  • Often triggered by stress.
  • Usually improves with a dose of over-the-counter pain medication.
  • Stress management techniques can help over the long term.


Where 3 different types of headaches hurt worst: a tension headache is felt all over the head; a migraine often on one side of the face; and a cluster is a “horrible pain” around the eyes.


Migraines are “one of the most disabling conditions,” said Dr. Yvonne Curran, an assistant professor of vascular neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

About 18 percent of women and 6 percent of men experience migraines. The current thinking is people who get migraines inherit a brain that is hypersensitive, said Knepper. Once a trigger is encountered, a cascade of events starts, culminating in the stimulation of a brain area that spews out inflammatory chemicals.

“The good thing about migraines is that once they are identified, they usually improve with preventive medications and lifestyle changes,” said Curran.

Most migraines are benign, albeit excruciating. A small subset of those with aura— premonitory symptoms, such as a shimmering or sparkly sensation — do have an increased risk of stroke, Knepper said.

Women with migraines related to menstruation can sometimes be helped by birth control pills that smooth out estrogen levels, although these medications are contraindicated in women with aura because they may hike stroke risk.

Migraine symptoms:

  • Usually affect just one side of the head
  • Pain can be throbbing, drilling or pounding
  • Symptoms worsen with exercise
  • Often brings sensitivity to light, sound and smells
  • Head pain is often accompanied by nausea
  • They can be treated with prescription medications designed to prevent the headaches or drugs that abort the attack once it’s already started.


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