Headaches: Various Types and How to Manage Them

Approximately one in seven Americans report recently experiencing severe headaches. In fact, in hospital settings, headaches and head pains together are the fourth most common reason for visits to the emergency department. Even if you have never had a headache severe enough to warrant a trip to the doctor’s office or receive a formal diagnosis, it is likely that you have experienced a lesser headache at least once in your life. What is the difference? How can we best manage the ensuing pain? In this article, we will take a brief look at the different kinds of headache and proven strategies for dealing with them.

The first way headaches are classified is by whether they are “primary” or “secondary.” A primary headache is a medical condition in its own right, rather than a symptom of something else. If another condition or situation is causing the pain, it is a secondary headache. Migraines and cluster headaches belong to the primary category. The secondary classification covers many potential causes: dehydration, allergies, high blood pressure, even caffeine withdrawal. Note that a headache of either classification can be either episodic (i.e. short in duration and infrequent) or chronic in nature. In the case of a chronic primary headache, it may be necessary to start a pain management plan with your physician. With chronic secondary headaches, however, it is usually sufficient to identify and treat the underlying problem.

As the underlying causes of primary headaches are not yet fully understood, treating them requires work with a physician. Those who suffer from migraines may find that there are certain foods, stress levels, or other triggers that make it more likely they will experience an attack. Identifying these triggers and avoiding or reducing exposure to them over time is one way to make living with the condition easier, but there are also medications made specifically for treating migraines. If over-the-counter pain medications are insufficient, a physician may prescribe you a triptan to take during attacks. Triptans (e.g. sumatriptan/Imitrex, rizatriptan/Maxalt) are anti-inflammatory drugs that can provide relief whereas over-the-counter drugs may not.

Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are fairly well characterized and can often be remedied at home or with basic over-the-counter medications. Staying well-hydrated will naturally reduce the occurrence of dehydration headaches – and if you are ever unsure of the cause of a headache, drinking some water is always a good first step. In addition, because caffeine affects the circulation of blood in your brain, routine users may experience headaches if they do not get their regular “fix” when their brain expects it. Just as too much caffeine can be a bad thing, too little can also be bad if one’s brain has adjusted to a regular dosage! It is for this reason that many over-the-counter headache treatments include a small amount of caffeine.

Severe allergies can cause headaches centered around the sinuses, which can be cleared out by taking decongestants. However, a persistent sinus headache that resists such treatment could indicate a sinus infection, which may require antibiotics in addition to decongestants. Regardless of the mode of action, clearing the sinuses should provide relief from the headache.


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25600719 - Burch, R.C. et al., 2015. The prevalence and burden of migraine and severe headache in the United States: updated statistics from government health surveillance studies.


Jonathan Arthur