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What Kind of Headache Do You Have? A Neurologist Breaks It Down

June 07, 2021
headache location chart, types of headaches. Graphic of woman with migraine, tension headache, sinus headache, cluster headache.

We’ve all been there before: A headache attacks us unexpectedly or a dull pulse builds in our head hour-after-hour.

Headaches can be unnerving, and turning to Google to explain your symptoms can often lead to more panic and confusion. Today, 50-75% of adults experience headaches and they often interfere with our ability to go about our daily lives.

Dr. James Otis, a Baystate Health Neurologist, helps us break down the different types of headaches you might experience on any given day.

Headache Locations, Headache Types, and their Causes:


A migraine is a severe headache with throbbing pain, often occurring many times a year. Symptoms of migraine may include:

  • Pain located in the back of the neck, forehead, cheeks, behind both eyes, along the hairline, or on one side of the head.
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Aura: flashes of light, blind spots, tingling in the hands or face and other vision changes
  • Sensitivity to noise, odors or light
  • Difficulty focusing due to the pain, aura and other sensitivities
  • Symptoms are made worse by doing any activity.

Causes of migraines vary and can be hard to pinpoint. It is recommended you visit with your primary care physician first who then may refer you to a neurologist to help determine the cause of your migraine, such as:

  • Low serotonin levels
  • Specific sounds, lights or odors
  • A specific food
  • Changes in the weather
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Hormones
  • Family history of migraines
  • Skipping meals or dehydration

Tension Headache

A tension headache is identified as a dull, non-throbbing headache often located at the back of the neck, forehead, cheeks, behind both eyes, along the hairline, or all over the head. A tension headache can also be experienced with tightness in the neck, shoulders and jaw. The most common cause of a tension headache is stress and poor sleep. This is also the most common type of headache you might experience.

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is identified as a headache that comes on quickly and severely. Cluster headaches occur in spurts or “clusters,” where you may have these headaches for a few weeks or months and then none for some time. Cluster headaches are usually located behind one eye or on one side of the head.

Other symptoms of a cluster headache are:

  • A red, teary eye, a smaller pupil and/or a drooping eyelid on the side of your head that you are experiencing pain
  • Puffiness around one or both eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • A flushed or warm face
  • Restlessness

Sinus Headache

A sinus headache is a headache that is usually accompanied by cold-like symptoms and pressure or tenderness around your eyes, forehead and cheeks. Other symptoms of a sinus headache include:

  • Increasing pain if you lean forward or lie down
  • Stuffy nose
  • Fatigue
  • Aching in your teeth
  • Thick, yellow or green nasal discharge

Sinus headaches are often a result of an infection and should be treated by your primary care physician.

Other Causes of Headaches

Other causes of a general dull-feeling headache, not attributed the above tension headache can include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Allergies
  • Straining your eyes
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Injury or trauma
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Hangover
  • Hunger or dehydration
  • Brain freeze from eating or drinking cold food
  • Rebound: a headache that appears after stopping an anti-headache medication
  • Jaw problems
  • Fever, flu or common cold
  • Menstruation

Headache Treatments

Always speak with your primary care physician before taking any medication for headaches.

Tension headaches are often helped by over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. Repeated or more severe headaches may need a prescription medication from your doctor.

When to Seek Emergency Help

If you have a headache that could be described by the “worst headache of your life” or a “thunderclap” feeling, you could be experiencing a stroke, brain aneurysm or brain hemorrhage and you should call 911 immediately.

If a you are experiencing a headache after injuring your head, especially if you lost consciousness when injured, you could have a concussion causing blood to form on the brain. This is called hematoma and needs emergency help.

Other signs of hematoma include:

  • One eye pupil is larger than the other
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • The headache continues to get worse
  • Slurred speech
  • Weakness or numbness in the body
  • Loss of balance or clumsiness
  • Repeated vomiting, convulsions or seizure
  • Unusual behavior, increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation

Learn More

Headaches can come in many forms. Baystate Health Neurology is here to help you determine the causes and achieve short and long-term relief.

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