Common Conditions

Different Types of Headaches and How to Treat Them

Most of the time, a headache is a minor medical complaint, more annoying than serious.  But even minor headaches can interfere with daily life, and sometimes headaches indicate a serious medical condition.  Consider visiting an urgent care clinic for chronic headaches or headaches accompanied by fever, stiff neck, rash, vomiting, confusion, slurred speech, paralysis or vision loss.


Primary vs. Secondary  Headaches

There are two main categories of headaches: primary and secondary.  A primary headache is its own medical condition in which the headache itself is the chief medical complaint, with no underlying illness.  Secondary headaches are caused by another medical condition, so the headache itself is not a stand-alone complaint.  Treating the initial complaint will usually relieve the secondary headache.  Consider visiting an urgent care for headaches to determine which type you have.


Different Types of Primary Headaches


There are several types of primary headaches:

  • Tension headaches cause dull, aching pain throughout the head, with no pinpoint pain.  The person may also experience tenderness or sensitivity of the neck and shoulder muscles, forehead, or scalp.  A tension headache may be brought on by stress. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil), and a combination of acetaminophen and caffeine, such as Excedrin Tension Headache, should provide headache relief.
  • Cluster headaches get their name because they occur in clusters of headaches, one after another, with headache relief in between.  The headaches may last from 15 minutes to three hours each and may occur one to four times a day.  Each headache is characterized by severe burning and piercing pain.  They may present as headaches behind the eyes or on one side of the face.  They may be accompanied by redness, swelling, flushing, sweating, nasal congestion, and eye tearing on that same side of the face.  Immediate headache relief may come from oxygen therapy, sumatriptan (Imitrex), or lidocaine.  Prevention may come from corticosteroids, melatonin, topiramate (Topamax), and calcium channel blockers.
  • Migraine headaches feel like a pulsing pain, often on one side of the head.  It is not uncommon for migraine sufferers to experience both headaches and nausea as well as sensitivity to light and sound.  The symptoms can be debilitating and may last for days, preventing the individual from engaging in day-to-day activities.  About one in five migraine sufferers will experience an aura before the onset of a migraine.  An aura is a visual disturbance that will cause the person to see things like flashing or shimmering lights, zigzag lines, stars, or blind spots.  Headache relief from migraines may come from OTC treatments or prescription medications known as triptans that reduce inflammation and alter blood flow to the brain.


Secondary Headaches

The most common secondary headache is a sinus headache, felt as pain and pressure in the sinus area and in front of the forehead.  It is caused by a buildup of mucus triggered by allergies.  Nasal steroid sprays or decongestants and antihistamines may provide headache relief.


Headaches that persist for more than 15 days out of the month for a three month period may indicate a chronic headache condition that requires a doctor’s attention. In addition, any headache accompanied by a stiff neck, rash, vomiting, confusion, slurred speech, paralysis or vision loss, a fever over 100.4 degrees, or simply the worst headache ever, can be a sign of a serious medical problem and requires immediate attention. If you experience these symptoms or are simply worried about your headache, visit our clinic for urgent care in Walnut Creek CA, or one of our other locations in the East Bay area.