11 different types of headaches, plus what yours is really trying to tell you

Think of your body as a messenger...

Types of headache: Frustrated African American woman holding eyeglasses near laptop
(Image credit: Getty Images/Tetra images RF)

Think of your body as a messenger...

Headaches can be a right pain, can't they. But, fun fact: learning about the different types of headaches is actually key to knowing how to treat them, too.

The pesky old things can cause major disruption to your daily routine and, whether it’s a dull ache or a sharp pain, can make you feel uncomfortable, distressed and in some cases, physically ill. Learn how to tame the beast and you may be able to ward them off quickly

We answered your questions on why your head hurts when you lay down on your pillow. Next up, we've asked GP doctor Houda Ounnas asked doctor broken down the different types of headaches, so you know exactly which type you're getting, why you’re getting them, and what you can do to relieve them.

Types of headaches: 11 to have on your radar

1. Tension headache

According to the expert, this is by far the most common headache. It’s mainly caused by tightness in the muscles of the scalp and back of the neck. You’re likely to feel a dull pressure or tightness around your head, especially your forehead.

Most people would describe this pain as mild to moderate and may feel tired when they have this type of headache. What your headache means? You're stressed.

How to cure a tension headache?

You to rest and drink lots of water. De-stressing will also help - why not try doing some yoga poses to release tension, and do some deep breathing?

Type of headaches: A woman with some painkillers

2. Sinus headache

Ounnas shares that if you’ve ever experienced a sinus, you may have thought it was actually a tension headache. "People commonly mistake tension headaches for sinus headaches," she shares.

FYI, sinus headaches are normally triggered by an acute sinus infection, which is no longer than rare, especially with all the viruses around. "Especially in cold season, many people especially in the UK will get sinusitis," she explains.

How to cure a sinus headache?

Try nasal decongestants, putting your head over boiling water with menthol crystals in it to open the sinuses, steroid nasal sprays, or antibiotics if the cause is bacterial. Rest, sleep and hydration will also help, shares Ounnas.

3. Migraine

You may not know the many other types of headache in this round-up, but you'll know this.

Technically, Ounnas shares that this type of headache is a neurological condition caused by an overreactive switch in the brain stem. When you experience a migraine, you might feel sensitive to light, smells and sounds. You’re also likely to experience a throbbing pain, which may lead to nausea or vomiting. This type of headache is normally triggered by certain types of foods, chronic stress or hormonal changes.

How to cure a migraine?

The doctor recommends anti-migraine tablets - not just simple pain killers. Failing that, rest and lying in the dark may help.

4. Cluster headache

This is one of the rarest headaches, shares Ounnas. In fact, only 0.1% f people will ever experience one. Fun fact: because it happens at the same time every day, doctors suspect the hypothalamus - the part of the brain that controls your body clock - may be involved.

Symptoms include intense pain behind one eye shortly after you fall asleep which can last an hour or two. The reason they're called cluster headaches is because it’s common for them to come in 'clusters': expect one or two headaches a day over several weeks.

How to cure a cluster headache?

The main triggers of cluster headaches are alcohol and cigarettes, so try and steer clear of these if you start experiencing them. Triptans and other medications are used to treat an attack once it's started, and Ounnas advises using triptans nasal sprays if you can't take via your mouth.

Teenager crying using laptop with a migraine

5. Secondary headaches

This is one of the types of headaches that comes on after experiencing a visual disturbance or something of the sort? Then you've experienced a secondary headache, quite literally named as they are headaches caused by something else. Insomnia sufferers will likely know what secondary headaches feel like, as they can often be caused by lack of sleep.

How to cure a secondary headache?

This one's simple - 'find and treat the cause,' shares Ounnas.

6. Hormone headaches

Being a women is fun, right? Hormone headaches are, sadly, a thing, and are often caused by oestrogen, especially the artificial ones found in contraception and HRT, explains the doctor.

Similar but not to be confused with menstrual migraines, which normally occur around your TOTM.

How to cure a hormone headache?

Short term, take some painkillers. Longer term, consider coming off the artificial oestrogens, Ounnas advises.

7. Caffeine headaches

We know, we know - coffee is great, but sadly, is a stimulant and also addictive. That means that if you drink too much, too often, and then have a day sans caffeine, you may start to experience a withdrawal. This will likely result in a headache, otherwise known as a caffeine headache.

How to cure a caffeine headache?

As Ounnas explains, the temporary solution is a cup of coffee, but long term, she advises you revise your caffeine addiction. "Reduce your intake - caffeine free is ideal, but if not, aim for no more than two coffees a day with the last one no later than 2pm," she recommends.

Types of headaches: Someone hands holding a mug of black coffee before drinking

8. Exertion headaches

The clue really is in the name with this one. Exertion headaches often present themselves when you over-exert yourself - anything from dehydration to over-exercising to stress at work can bring them on.

How to cure an exertion headache?

Simple, really: don't overexert yourself. "Rest and hydration are key, too," adds Ounnas.

9. Hypertension headaches

FYI, hypertension headaches are those niggles you get at the back of the head. "These are often caused by high blood pressure," explains Ounnas.

How to cure a hypertension headache? 

As with secondary headaches, it's important to get to the root cause of the issue here. "Treat the blood pressure with lifestyle or medications if needed," advises the doctor.

Types of headaches: Girlfriends doing push-ups together

10. Rebound headaches

Otherwise known as an 'analgesic induced headache', rebound headaches are actually headaches caused by a long-term addiction to painkillers. Though not all-too-common, they're worth having on your radar.

How to cure a rebound headache?

Reduce your use of painkillers and make sure you're mindful of how many you're taking, Ounnas advises.

Top tip here: if it’s a primary headache and you must take painkillers, then she advises taking 'drug holidays' "This will help you avoid addiction," she explains. "For example, temporarily change to Paracetamol from Ibuprofen and then switch back. This way, your body is never in long term contact with a drug enough to become addicted," she explains.

11. Primary headache

For the final types of headaches to have on your radar, last but by no means least is the primary headache. It's a kind of mystery headache - think one that keeps continuing to happen with seemingly no cause or explanation, even after consulting with your GP or a neurologist.

How to cure a primary headache?

This one is tricky as, in short, experts just don't know. Ounnas stresses the importance of a healthy lifestyle, good sleep and hydration, and recommends simple pain killers, if it becomes debilitating.

Note here: do be careful of the risk of becoming addicted or, even worse, getting a rebound headache caused by painkillers, as explained above.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.