The Most Common Types of Headaches—and How to Cure Them
Use our symptom sorter to identify which type of headache is giving you grief, along with expert advice on how to ease your suffering.
There are more than 300 types of headaches
If you suffer from headaches (and 2.7 million Canadians do) then you’re well acquainted with throbbing or pulsing pain that can leave you reaching for painkillers or looking for an ice pack. Though more than 300 types of headaches exist, the most common are tension, migraine and cluster headaches. The good news? You can prevent and minimize headaches—and new, promising treatments are available.
Chances are you’ve experienced tension headaches, which affect 29 per cent of the population. The most common type of headache, they’re characterized by dull pain and pressure around the forehead, as well as throbbing on one or both sides of the skull. Tension headaches are caused by stress, tight neck muscles, sitting in one position for too long or by cold weather, and usually last 30 minutes. Treat these headaches with over-the-counter painkillers. If the discomfort doesn’t dissipate after several hours, or grows worse, see a doctor to rule out something more serious, says Dr. William Kingston, a neurologist and headache specialist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.
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Migraines—which affect 17 per cent of women during their reproductive years and 10 per cent of men—can last for hours or even days, with symptoms that precede and follow the attack. Often running in families and triggered by stress, lack of sleep or changes in barometric pressure, these neurological disturbances can lead to throbbing on one side of the head, nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sounds and smells. Because sufferers miss a lot of work, “Migraines lead to more lost productivity than having cancer,” says Kingston.
Thankfully, new preventative medications called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors have emerged, which target the protein that causes migraines. Taken monthly, these injectable drugs, which are covered by some private health insurance plans, have demonstrated a 50 per cent reduction in the frequency of migraines. Currently, one is approved in Canada, with two more to follow within the next year, says Dr. Sian Spacey, director of the Headache Clinic at the University of British Columbia.
Practicing good migraine hygiene—getting rest and exercise, eating regular meals, skipping alcohol and caffeine—can also help, says Kingston. And if one strikes, rather than reaching for over-the-counter drugs, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen and (which can worsen headaches in the long term), prescription medications such as triptans or ergots can alleviate symptoms.
These painful bouts have been called suicide headaches—and not without reason. They’re characterized by extreme discomfort that starts around the same time every day—usually in the morning—and typically increases for five to 10 minutes, lasting up to an hour and a half. Attacks can reoccur multiple times a day. Currently, CGRP inhibitors are being evaluated as a form of treatment, says Spacey. Other brain-stimulating therapies, such as occipital nerve stimulation and non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation (nVNS), are also being explored.
In the meantime, treatments include patients inhaling oxygen through a mask, injecting triptans or a synthetic version of the brain hormone somatostatin, and using local anesthetics such as lidocaine via the nose.
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When to speak with your doctor
Unusual headaches—ones that you’ve never experienced before that become worse or more frequent—warrant further investigation, says Kingston. If you notice unexplained weight loss, chills, fever, vision changes or mobility or balance issues, ask your doctor to rule out an aneurysm (a weakening of an artery in the brain) or a brain tumour. “It’s important to get the right diagnosis,” says Spacey.
Now that you know the most common types of headaches, check out 20 symptoms you should never ignore.