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My Head Hurts! A Beginner's Guide to Headaches

Edited by Olivia McPherson

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Did you know that nearly 50% of the adult population will have had at least one headache in the past year, and 78% will have had at least one headache in their lifetime? Headaches are an extremely common but under-treated condition. Untreated headache disorders place a large burden on society, with the UK estimating approximately 25 million productive hours lost each year due to migraines alone. There are many different types of headaches. This article will summarize the different types of headaches and how each type is typically treated.

Types of Headaches

While the three most common types of headaches include tension-type headaches, migraines, and medication overuse headaches, another notable type of headache is the cluster headache. Depending on the type of headache, its recurrence, and its severity, you may be able to treat your headache with over-the-counter medications.

Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache disorder and will affect up to 78% of adults at least once in their lifetime. This type of headache is often described as pressure that feels like a tight band wrapping around the head. The pain may also spread down into the neck. Individuals who experience these types of headaches describe the pain as a steady ache as opposed to a throbbing ache or sharp pain. While many factors may contribute to developing a tension-type headache, stress often plays a large role in their development. Tension-type headaches may last anywhere from 30 minutes to 7 days. Unlike the other headache types, tension-type headaches are not associated with nausea or vomiting and will not worsen with physical activity. If you experience tension-type headaches less than 15 days out of the month, you can likely self-treat your headache with over-the-counter medications.


It has been estimated that 14% of the world’s population has experienced a migraine at some point in their life. Migraines are typically described as a throbbing, pulsating headache and are usually more painful than tension-type headaches. However, migraine attacks may be shorter than some tension-type headaches, typically lasting anywhere between 4 to 72 hours. Unlike tension-type headaches, migraines can be aggravated by physical activity and are commonly associated with nausea and vomiting. Women are twice as likely to experience migraines compared to men, and adults between the ages of 35 and 45 experience more migraines than any other age group. If you think you are experiencing migraines, it is important that you are assessed by a doctor before self-treating to rule out any red flags that may indicate a more serious issue.

Medication Overuse Headaches

Medication overuse headaches occur when someone is treating frequent headaches, defined as >15 headaches per month, with over-the-counter and/or prescription medications. In fact, 65% of medication overuse headaches stem from treating frequent migraines. The medications that have the highest risk for causing medication overuse headaches are opioids and acetaminophen-aspirin-caffeine combinations, but they may also be caused by other medications such as triptans (e.g., sumatriptan, rizatriptan, etc.). The symptoms that you may experience with a medication overuse headache could be correlated with the type of medication being overused. For example, with overuse of opioids, caffeine or other pain relievers (e.g., Advil or Tylenol), symptoms are more likely to be similar to those of a tension type headache. However, with triptan overuse headaches, symptoms are more likely to mimic that of a migraine. Treating medication overuse headaches should be done with guidance of a health care practitioner. The main approach to treatment of this subtype of headaches is discontinuing or slowly reducing the medication that is being overused. When treating medication overuse headaches, it is also crucial to address and treat the underlying headache condition that is causing medication overuse to occur. If you think you may be experiencing medication overuse headaches, it is important to speak to your doctor or pharmacist about treatment and next steps.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are relatively rare, affecting less than 1 in 1000 adults. It is interesting to note that men are 6 times more likely than women to experience this type of headache. Cluster headaches typically present as sudden severe pain on one side of the head, usually localized around one eye. Other symptoms of cluster headaches include red or watering eyes, nasal congestion, eyelid drooping or swelling, and forehead sweating. Cluster headaches are much shorter than other types of headaches, typically lasting for 1-3 hours. If you think you may be experiencing a cluster headache, it is important you seek diagnosis from a doctor. Given the debilitating nature of these headaches, they should NOT be self-managed.

When to See a Doctor

There are certain signs that may indicate a more serious headache condition and must assessed by a doctor. These include:

  • Fever

  • Stiff neck

  • Pregnancy

  • Seizures

  • Sudden onset

  • Recent head trauma

  • Different in severity or location compared to previous headaches

If any of these red flags are present during your headache, it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

How to Self-Treat Your Headache

If you are suffering from a tension type headache or a migraine with an existing diagnosis, you may want to self-treat. There are a few different medications available that can be used to help treat some of the associated pain and symptoms.

Some of the first-choice medications used to help treat these headaches include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). However, it is important to note that each of these drugs have potential side effects. For example, ibuprofen and aspirin may cause stomach bleeds in certain individuals and acetaminophen is associated with liver damage at high doses. It is important to talk with your pharmacist or another trusted healthcare professional about which of these medications is best for you.

Some other tips and tricks to help prevent headaches include limiting screen time, staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and trying to minimize stress.

Did you learn something new about headaches today? Comment below with what you found most interesting about this article!

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