5 Types of Headache and their Locations

Common Symptoms, What To Do & When To Worry

Introduction

There are many different types of headache, and each one tends to have its own set of triggers, symptoms and treatment options. Different headaches are also associated with specific locations too.

Some of the more common types of headache - like tension headaches - can affect the whole head, while others - such as cluster or sinus headaches - typically affect a more specific area.

Identifying where your pain is can be key to helping you work out why you are suffering. This information can help you administer effective relief, or decide if you need to seek medical attention.

We’ve mapped out 5 different headaches, and provided information about the steps you can take to relieve them.

If you are worried about your headache, or find that painkillers are not reducing your pain, we would always advise that you see a doctor to rule out any serious medical problems.

Migraine

Migraine

Common symptoms include:

  • Throbbing pain on one side of the head
  • Moderate to severe pain
  • Blurred vision, seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines
  • Increased sensitivity to light, smells or loud noises
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

What to do

Migraines are more common than you might think. In fact, The Migraine Trust estimate that one in seven people suffer from these headaches, while chronic migraines affect around 2% of the world population.

The exact causes are unknown, but there are a number of effective treatments that can help manage your pain. Often, people notice triggers for their migraine such as lack of sleep, or eating certain foods such as cheese or chocolate.

If you're unsure what triggers your migraine, you could try keeping a migraine diary.

If you are suffering from a migraine, you should move to a dark, quiet room, and lie down until the symptoms pass. Sleep if you can, and try to minimise exposure to anything that makes your headache worse.

Some people find that heat or ice packs help to reduce the symptoms of a migraine, and a non-prescription painkiller may help to reduce your pain. It tends to be more effective if you take medication when you first notice migraine symptoms.

When to worry

You should seek medical advice immediately if you:

  • Notice your headache getting progressively worse
  • Develop muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Have a high temperature
  • Develop double vision
  • Experience seizures
  • Notice a rash anywhere on your body

These could be symptoms of a more serious condition - including meningitis or a stroke.

If you are suffering from migraines more than five times a month, you should book an appointment with your doctor.

You should also see a doctor if your migraines are starting to affect your quality of life. Living with migraines can be challenging, and they may be able to prescribe medications to help manage the condition and its symptoms.

You can read more about migraines in our Health A-Z.

Cluster Headache

Cluster Headache

Common symptoms include:

  • Stabbing or burning pain centred over one eye or temple
  • Severe or excruciating pain lasting from a few minutes to a few hours
  • A red and watering eye
  • A drooping or swollen eyelid
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A shrunken or constricted pupil
  • Sweating

What to do

Cluster headaches often occur at night, and tend to recur at the same time every day.

According to research published in the BMJ, they generally last between 15 minutes and three hours, but they can be frequent, and are known to be one of the most excruciating headaches that you can experience.

If you think you might be a suffering from a cluster headache for the first time, you should seek medical attention immediately. This will allow your doctor to rule out other causes and provide an accurate diagnosis.

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for a cluster headache, but it may be possible to avoid them by limiting your exposure to known triggers like cigarettes, or the strong smelling chemicals in perfume and paint.

Your doctor may also be able to put you in touch with support groups, provide medication, or organise oxygen therapy which has been shown to help alleviate attacks.

When to worry

As mentioned above, if you think you might be experiencing a cluster headache for the first time then you should seek immediate medical attention to rule out other causes, including meningitis or a stroke.

Although cluster headaches are not life-threatening, you should also seek immediate medical attention if you:

  • Notice a change in their frequency or severity
  • Experience new symptoms
  • Develop weakness or paralysis
  • Have a fever

You can read more about cluster headaches in our Health A-Z.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches

Common symptoms include:

  • Dull, aching pain on both sides of the head
  • A feeling of pressure behind the eyes
  • The sensation of tightness at the back of the head
  • Tender neck or shoulder muscles

What to do

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, but they can still be very painful. Statistics published by the World Health Organisation suggest that between 1-3% of adults suffer from chronic tension headaches.

Your best course of action is to take painkillers as soon as you can, and retreat to a quiet space. You can try to further reduce your symptoms by relaxing, or applying a cold compress to your neck.

Some people find that light exercise, such as yoga, can help to alleviate the symptoms of a tension headache. Your headache should pass relatively quickly, although they can last for several hours.

If you have frequent tension headaches it may also be worth keeping a headache diary. This can help you to work out what is causing your headaches, and enable you to modify your lifestyle accordingly.

Overuse of medications can cause rebound headaches, and make your condition harder to manage. Try to minimise the amount of painkillers you take, and seek medical attention if you find the frequency of your headaches increasing.

When to worry

If you find that your headache has come on much faster than normal, or are experiencing several tension headaches a week, book an appointment with a doctor.

You should also seek immediate medical attention if you:

  • Cannot control your headache with medication
  • Experience muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Feel confused
  • Develop slurred speech
  • Feel nauseous or start to vomit

Although painful, tension headaches are rarely the result of a serious medical problem, so try not to worry too much. Most tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck, and normally pass with time.

You can read more about tension headaches in our Health A-Z.

Sinus Headache

Sinus Headache

Common symptoms include:

  • Throbbing pain in the forehead or cheeks
  • Facial tenderness or swelling
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Green or yellow discharge from the nose
  • Earache
  • Fever

What to do

Sinus headaches occur when the sinuses become inflamed due to infection or allergies. They can be very painful, and are often mistaken for migraines. If you think you have a sinus headache, you should see a doctor so that they can exclude other causes.

Your doctor may prescribe medications such as nasal decongestants, antihistamines or a steroid nasal spray.

You can also try to relieve the symptoms of a sinus headache at home. The most effective treatments include inhaling moist air from a humidifier or a bowl of heated water; nasal douching with a saline solution, or holding a warm or cold flannel over your face.

When to worry

It is important to see a doctor if your:

  • Pain is severe
  • Symptoms aren't improved by painkillers
  • Headache does not improve after a week
  • Headaches occur frequently

You can read more about sinus headaches in our Health A-Z.

Giant Cell Arteritis

Giant Cell Arteritis

Common symptoms include:

  • Sudden pain in the temples, the top of the head or behind your ears
  • Tenderness or swelling to the top, sides, front or back of the head
  • A sore scalp
  • Jaw pain, typically when chewing or talking
  • Visual problems
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

What to do

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is relatively uncommon. A study published in the PMC suggests it affects around 0.25% of adults over 50, and is virtually unknown in people younger than this. Nonetheless, the condition is serious and can cause permanent vision loss.

Giant cell arteritis occurs when the arteries in your head or neck become inflamed. The symptoms tend to present very quickly, and people suffering from giant cell arteritis normally report that they had little or no warning before the pain began.

Because giant cell arteritis can lead to permanent vision loss, it is important to treat it as a medical emergency.

If you think you might be experiencing giant cell arteritis, you should seek medical attention immediately. A doctor will then be able to screen you for the condition, and help to treat the underlying cause.

When to worry

Giant cell arteritis is a serious problem, and can lead to permanent vision loss. As such, we would always recommend seeking immediate medical attention if you think you may be experiencing GCA.

Diagnosis normally involves blood tests and a biopsy, and you will then be treated using steroids, low doses of aspirin and/or immunosuppressants to reduce the inflammation.

You can read more about giant cell arteritis in our Health A-Z.

Conclusion

The location of your headache can tell you a lot about its possible causes and how to treat it. However it's important to remember that everyone experiences conditions in their own way.

If your headache is particularly severe, won't respond to painkillers, or is accompanied by muscle weakness, vomiting or confusion then you should seek medical attention right away.

You can read more about headaches in our Health A-Z.



Back to top