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16th August, 20188 min read

5 types of headache and their locations

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There are many different types of headache, and each tends to have its own set of triggers, symptoms and treatment options. Different headaches are also associated with specific locations.

Some of the more common types of headache – like tension headaches – can affect the whole head, while others – such as cluster or sinus headaches – typically affect a more specific area.

Identifying the location of your headache can be key to helping you work out why you’re in pain and how to treat it, as well as when you might need to see a doctor.

We’ve mapped out 5 different types of headaches, and provided information about the steps you can take to get rid of them.

If you’re worried about your headache, or find that painkillers are not reducing your pain, see a doctor to rule out any serious medical problems.

Migraine

A migraine is a condition that often causes a headache where the pain is located on the side of the head, along with other common symptoms.

These include:

  • throbbing pain on one side of the head
  • moderate to severe pain
  • blurred vision, or seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines
  • increased sensitivity to light, smells or loud noises
  • feeling lightheaded
  • sickness (nausea) and vomiting

What to do

Migraines are more common than you might think. The Migraine Trust estimates that 1 in 7 people have this type of headache, while ongoing migraines affect around 2% of the world’s population.

The exact causes are unknown, but there are a number of effective treatments that can help manage your pain. Often, people notice triggers for their migraine such as lack of sleep, or eating certain foods such as cheese or chocolate. If you're unsure what triggers your migraine, you could try keeping a migraine diary.

If you have a migraine, try moving to a dark, quiet room, and lie down until the symptoms pass. Sleep if you can, and try to minimise exposure to anything that makes your headache worse.

Some people find that heat or ice packs help to reduce the symptoms of a migraine.

Painkillers, like paracetamol, are usually more effective if you take them when you first notice migraine symptoms, but make sure you speak to a pharmacist or doctor before you do this.

When to see a doctor

You should seek medical advice immediately if you:

  • notice your headache getting gradually worse
  • develop muscle weakness or paralysis
  • have a high temperature
  • notice double vision
  • experience seizures
  • notice a rash anywhere on your body

These could be symptoms of a more serious condition, including meningitis or a stroke.

If you get migraines often – more than 5 times a month – book an appointment with a doctor. You should also see a doctor if your migraines are starting to affect your quality of life – living with them can be challenging, and you can be given some medication to help manage the symptoms.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches often happen at night, and tend to come back at the same time every day.

According to research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), they generally last between 15 minutes and 3 hours, but they can be more frequent and are known to be one of the most painful headaches that you can have.

Common symptoms include:

  • stabbing or burning pain over 1 eye or temple
  • very bad pain lasting from a few minutes to a few hours
  • a red and watering eye
  • a drooping or swollen eyelid
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a shrunken or constricted pupil
  • sweating

What to do

If you think you’ve had a cluster headache, and it’s the first time it’s happened, see a doctor immediately so they can rule out other causes of your symptoms.

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure for a cluster headache, but you might be able to reduce the number of them by avoiding certain triggers like cigarettes, or strong smelling chemicals in things like perfume and paint.

Your doctor may also be able to put you in touch with support groups, provide medication, or organise oxygen therapy, which has been shown to help reduce the number of cluster headaches.

When to see a doctor

Cluster headaches aren’t life-threatening, but you should see a doctor immediately if you:

  • notice a change in their number or how bad they are
  • experience new symptoms
  • develop weakness or paralysis
  • have a fever
  • have had a cluster headache for the first time – this is to rule out other causes, including meningitis or a stroke

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, but they can still be very painful. Research published by the World Health Organisation suggests that between 1-3% of adults suffer from chronic tension headaches.

Common symptoms include:

  • dull, aching pain on both sides of the head
  • pressure behind the eyes
  • some tightness at the back of the head
  • a tender neck or shoulder muscles

What to do

Try to take painkillers, such as paracetamol, as soon as you can and sit down in a quiet space. You can also try relaxing, applying a cold compress to your neck, or trying light exercise, such as yoga.

Your headache should pass relatively quickly, although it can last for several hours.

If you have a lot of tension headaches, you could also try keeping a headache diary. This can help you to work out what’s causing your headaches, and allow you to change your lifestyle to improve your symptoms.

Make sure that you don’t take too many painkillers over a specific time period, which can make your symptoms worse. Always speak to a pharmacist or a doctor before you take them, and get advice if your headaches start to happen more often.

When to worry

Painful tension headaches are usually nothing to worry about and most are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck, which normally pass with time.

But if your headaches are coming on much faster than normal, or you're experiencing several tension headaches a week, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.

You should also speak to a doctor as soon as you can if you:

  • notice muscle weakness or paralysis
  • feel confused
  • start slurring your speech
  • feel sick (nauseous) or start to vomit
  • can’t control your headache with medication

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches occur when the sinuses become inflamed after an infection or due to allergies. They can be very painful, and are often mistaken for migraines. If you think you have a sinus headache, it’s best to see a doctor so that they can rule out any other causes.

Common symptoms include:

  • throbbing pain in the forehead or cheeks
  • facial tenderness or swelling
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • green or yellow discharge from the nose
  • ear ache
  • fever

What to do

Your doctor may prescribe medications such as nasal decongestants, antihistamines or a steroid nasal spray.

You can also try to improve your symptoms at home. The most effective of these treatments include inhaling moist air from a humidifier or a bowl of heated water (nasal douching with a saline solution), or holding a warm or cold flannel over your face.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor as soon as you can if your:

  • pain is severe
  • symptoms aren't improving with painkillers
  • headache doesn’t get better after a week
  • headaches are happening often

Giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is relatively uncommon. A study published in PubMed Central (PMC) suggests it affects around 0.25% of adults over 50, and is virtually unknown in people younger than this. But the condition is serious and can cause permanent vision loss.

GCA occurs when the arteries in your head or neck become inflamed. The symptoms usually come on very quickly, with little to no warning signs.

Common symptoms include:

  • tenderness or swelling at the top, sides, front or back of the head
  • a sore scalp
  • jaw pain, typically when chewing or talking
  • visual problems
  • a fever
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • weight loss
  • sudden pain in the temples, the top of the head or behind your ears

When to see a doctor

GCA is a serious problem and can lead to permanent vision loss, so see a doctor right away if you think you have symptoms.

A doctor will normally diagnose you with blood tests and a biopsy, and treatment usually involves steroids, low doses of aspirin or immunosuppressants to reduce inflammation.

Conclusion

The location of your headache can tell you a lot about its possible causes and how to treat it.

If your headache is particularly severe, won't respond to painkillers, or is accompanied by muscle weakness, vomiting or confusion, speak to a doctor immediately.

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