You see the aura again. No, you’re not on a spiritual retreat in an ancient Redwood forest—you suffer from migraines, and you know one is about to begin whenever you notice the neurological symptoms that precede a migraine. It’s time to seek help, but where do you start? And what can a headache doctor or other medical professional do for you? Find out about the different kinds of headaches and common treatments for each.
Not all headaches are created equally. Headaches fall into two basic categories depending on their causes, symptoms, and even location: primary/benign (tension-type, migraine, cluster) and secondary (organically caused). According to the National Headache Foundation, it’s common for people to suffer a mix of both types of headaches. If you are wishing to seek treatment, it helps to know what kind of headache you experience so your doctor or specialist can select the best treatment. Types of headaches include:
- Tension headaches
- Cluster headaches
- Migraine headaches
- Occipital headaches
- Sinus headaches
- Rebound headaches
Tension headaches are often due to stress, anger, anxiety, or fatigue. In addition to medications to help alleviate temple soreness, a squeezing feeling, and aching neck and facial muscles, regular exercise, biofeedback, a healthy diet, and stress-relieving techniques can be just as effective in preventing tension headaches.
Often called the most painful type of headache, cluster headaches attack in groups without much warning and can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours and occur up to 8 times in a day. The pain is described as a drilling sensation and occurs often on just one side of the head. Sometimes, a runny nose and bloodshot, teary eyes happen during cluster headaches, thought to be caused by chemical reactions in the brain.
A migraine headache can begin as a dull ache and gradually increase in pain, usually accompanied by a combination of nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise. Certain triggers, such as perfumes, foods, and hormonal changes, can start migraines, but everyone is different. Migraine headaches follow certain criteria for diagnosis:
- At least five previous episodes of headaches lasting between 4–72 hours
- At least two out of these four: one-sided pain, throbbing pain, moderate to severe pain, and pain that interferes with, is worsened by, or prohibits routine activity
- At least one associated feature: nausea and/or vomiting, or, if those are not present, then sensitivity to light and sound
Occipital headaches are caused by several factors, which makes diagnosis sometimes difficult. The occipital nerves are two pairs of nerves that begin at the second and third vertebrae, so pain starts at the base of the neck and may spread to the area behind the eyes and to the front, side and back of the head. A doctor or specialist who treats headaches will document symptoms, conduct a thorough physical examination including medical history, and may order diagnostic tests, such as a MRI or CT scan.
When the sinus cavities become inflamed due to an infection, the pain can be intense due to pressure in the cheekbones, forehead, and nose. Relief can be found with sinus rinses, antibiotics, antihistamines, or decongestants.
If you take certain medications for headaches, they can sometimes stop working due to overuse and actually cause headaches. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s smart to have a professional examine your current dosage, wean you off the medication, and recommend other treatment methods for recurring headaches that will not cause a rebound headache.
What to Expect from a Doctor or Medical Professional Who Can Treat Headaches
Start by making an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss your headaches. He or she can recommend if you need a specialist, especially if you have other health issues, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease, that require a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. Equipped with this knowledge, you can seek out professional help to alleviate this painful condition.