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Not All Headaches are Created Equal

July 03, 2014

Imagine this common scenario: You’re at work one morning, and you begin to feel a dull ache on one side of your head. As the day wears on, you start to feel pressure in your forehead and a tightening sensation in your temples. You take some over-the-counter medication, and the pain goes away—only for it to return the next day, seemingly worse.

You have a headache, one of the most common conditions that Americans suffer from. In fact, according to the National Headache Foundation, more than 45 million Americans experience chronic, recurring headaches. Even more surprising is that 28 million of these Americans suffer from migraines.

So, what kind of headache do you have? Is it a migraine? A sinus headache? A tension headache? How can you tell the difference? There are actually several different types of headaches, and while they can sometimes be hard to tell apart, each one has a unique set of symptoms.

To help you understand which type of headache you have, I’ve provided a breakdown of the most common kinds of headaches and the best way to treat each one:

Tension Headaches

If you’ve been feeling a little stressed out lately, you might have a tension headache. This type of headache, which occurs randomly, is usually caused by anxiety, fatigue, stress or even anger.

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches among adults and, surprisingly, adolescents as well. When you feel a tension headache coming on, the pain will start in your forehead, temples or the back of your head and neck. At first, you may experience a feeling of pressure or soreness. As it gets progressively worse, you might notice a pulling feeling or a tightening sensation around your head. In fact, many people refer to tension headaches as “hatband headaches” because they can cause pain from the forehead all the way around to the back of your head—almost as if you’re wearing a hat that’s too tight.

The best way to relieve a tension headache is by resting or practicing relaxation techniques. You can also treat a tension headache by taking over-the-counter medications, muscle relaxants or prescription medications. But be careful how much you take because it could lead to this next type of headache...

Rebound Headaches

If you find yourself taking ibuprofen or another over-the-counter medication every time you get a headache, you might start to get headaches because of the medication. This type of headache is known as a rebound headache.

Rebound headaches are essentially what they sound like—it is a headache caused by a rebound effect from taking too much medication. If you take medications for another type of headache more than two days per week, you might start to experience rebound headaches. Rebound headaches can also occur if you regularly take more than the recommended dosage of medication.

The best way to treat a rebound headache is by slowly weening yourself off of the medication you’re taking. You can try doing this by using another treatment or medication for your headaches—so long as you use it in moderation. While stopping can be challenging, overusing a medication to treat headaches can lead to serious side effects. If you take more than the recommended amount of headache medications on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about alternate ways to treat your headaches.

Sinus Headaches

Do you ever feel a constant, deep pain in your cheekbones, forehead or nose? You may be suffering from regular sinus headaches. While other types of headaches can cause pain in the temples or back of the head, sinus headaches are facial headaches. The pain and pressure will typically begin in your lower sinus cavities and travel upward to your forehead, the bridge of your nose and behind or between your eyes. The pain may also worsen with sudden movements.

Sinus headaches typically occur when—you guessed it—your sinuses become inflamed. This could be caused by an allergic reaction, an infection or even a tumor. The best way to tell if you have a sinus headache is if you’re experiencing other symptoms along with it. These symptoms could include facial swelling, fever, nasal discharge, stuffiness or a feeling of fullness in the ears.

To treat a sinus headache, try taking an over-the-counter medication (in moderation, of course), a decongestant or an antihistamine. It may also be helpful to use nasal irrigation, such as a Neti pot, to clear out your sinuses and help reduce pressure.


Many people who believe they have sinus headaches actually have a different type of headache—migraines. Migraines are very common and can be quite severe. When you have a migraine, you will usually feel a dull ache that slowly develops into a throbbing or pounding pain. You may feel the pain on one side of your head, but it can also spread to your temples or the back of your head. A migraine can last anywhere from a few hours up to three days.

Unfortunately, migraine pain can become so severe that it causes nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also experience what is known as an aura. An aura is essentially a warning that a migraine is coming. You may see wavy lines, flashing lights or spots, or you may experience loss of vision. An aura can also cause numbness or weakness, or you might notice strange changes in smell, taste or touch. In most cases, the symptoms of an aura will fade as the headache begins.

When it comes to treating recurring migraines, it may be a good idea to see a doctor, headache specialist or neurologist. Yes, over-the-counter medications can help relieve mild pain, but your doctor can prescribe other medications or treatments to help you experience fewer migraine headaches.

See Your Doctor for Persistent Headaches

If you have questions about which type of headache you have or what the best treatment may be, be sure to talk with your doctor.

If you experience persistent headaches for two weeks or longer, it is important to see your doctor right away. They may be caused by an underlying condition, such as an infection or tumor. To learn more about neurological conditions that could be causing your headaches, download our free guide here.

For more answers to common questions about headaches, visit the National Headache Foundation website.