Headache: your go-to guide

For many, headaches are a fact of life, but they don't have to be. Here are four of the most common headache types, complete with an easy to identify list of symptoms, their causes and treatment options.

by Laura Chapman, March 2019

Agility Osteopathy South Melbourne headaches

You hear it all the time… “I’ve got a headache” and immediately understand the consequences – decreased productivity, varying levels of agony, and, often most painfully, distorted facial expressions from colleagues and friends to show solidarity against the unstoppable tyrant that is the “headache” affecting millions of people around the world every day.

But there’s nothing that can be done, right? Headaches are just a fact of life that no one can explain. Ride them out and hopefully tomorrow will be a better day…

Well perhaps not. Have you ever stopped to consider the different types of headaches and their causes? And what can be done to prevent the onset of headaches in the first place?

This article provides a summary of the four main types of headaches and their root causes, helping you decipher your symptoms and offering practical tips for how to prevent and combat the different types of headache. Who knows, maybe next time someone (or you yourself) has a headache, you can replace your standard “oh, that’s a shame” with a “oh really, what kind?”

1. Tension type headache

Tension type headaches are very common primary headaches, meaning they are not caused by any other condition. They are thought to affect more than 60% of the population, with an increased prevalence in women.


Mild to moderate pain or pressure in the front, top or sides of the head
Often described as vice-like, or a clamp squeezing your entire head
Headband distribution
Difficulty focusing
A feeling of pressure behind the eyes
Lasts for 30 mins to a few days
Sensitivity to light and sound


• Musculoskeletal problems in the neck and upper back
Poor posture
Poor sleep
Eye strain
Skipping meals


Osteopathic treatment
Adequate hydration
Getting enough sleep
Getting your eyes checked
Management of stress, anxiety and depression

2. Migraine

Migraine attacks are considered to be a primary headache and are often accompanied by visual disturbances. They are thought to affect approximately 20% of the population, with the first appearance often being in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The greatest number of suffers are aged between 35 and 45 years of age, and are more likely to be women with a family history of migraine.


Intense throbbing pain on one side of the face
Aggravated by movement
Sensitivity to light, sound and smell
Nausea and vomiting
Lasts for between 4 and 72 hours

Approximately one third of people experience visual and sensory disturbances for between 5 and 60 minutes leading up to the migraine. These are known as aura.

Seeing flickering lights, spots, stars or zig-zagging lines
Partial loss of vision

Auras can also include tingling or paralysis on one side of your face or in one arm, as well as muscle weakness and difficulty speaking. These symptoms, however, can also mimic those of a stroke, so if you are experiencing these symptoms for the first time, please consult your doctor immediately.


The cause of migraine is unclear, but genetics and environmental factors are thought to play a role. Migraine may be caused by changes in the brainstem and nerve function, hormonal fluctuations and the interaction between the brain and the blood vessel of the head.

Triggers of migraine may include

Dehydration & skipped meals
Sleep disruption
Hormone fluctuations
Stress and anxiety
Some foods & medications
Bright lights and loud noises


Attacks may also be eased by resting in a dark, quiet place, drinking water and placing a cold cloth on the forehead

3. Cluster headache

Cluster headaches are a primary headache disorder. They are considered to be one of the most painful and disabling disorders known to humans, affecting 0.1% of the population, and are more prevalent in men.


Intense burning or piercing pain behind or around one eye
Usually only one-sided
Sudden onset, without warning, lasting between 15 minutes and 3 hours, up to 8 times per day.
Severe intensity
Attacks tend to occur in daily clusters, at the same time each day

Some people may also experience:

Watering eye
Sense of restlessness and agitation
Eyelid swelling
Nasal congestion
Sensitivity to light and sound


The cause of cluster headaches is unclear, but the headaches are thought to be exacerbated by cigarette smoke, alcohol and strong smells


Lifestyle changes such as a regular sleep schedule and alcohol avoidance
Nerve block injection
Nerve stimulation devices

4. Sinus headache

Sinuses are air-filled spaces inside the forehead, cheekbones and behind the bridge of the nose. When they get inflamed, usually due to an allergic reaction or infection, they swell up, create more mucus and the pathways that drain them become blocked. The build up of pressure in your sinuses may cause pain that feels like a headache.


Deep and constant pain or pressure in the cheekbones, forehead or bridge of the nose
Pain worsens with sudden head movement or straining
The face can be tender to touch and appear reddened
Nasal congestion
Pain in the jaw


Allergic reaction, hay fever
Sinus inflammation caused by a viral infection


Aimed at decreasing inflammation within the sinus passages, allowing them to drain, and reducing pressure causing the headache.

Antibiotics may not always be necessary
Increase fluid intake
Air humidification
Warm compress to the face
Medication – antihistamines, decongestants


But perhaps the most important thing…

While the majority of headaches may be attributed to primary headaches (such as tension-type, migraine and cluster headaches), a new onset of headache should always be assessed by a medical professional. If you experience the sudden onset of a new headache, headaches beginning after 50 years of age, headaches increasing in frequency and severity, headaches after head trauma, or headaches accompanied by signs of fever, chills, rash, dilated pupils, difficulty speaking, muscle weakness or numbness, seek medical attention immediately.

Please note that this information is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

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