The Main Types of Headaches

A headache is a very common symptom that may or may not be associated with other conditions. In this article we summarize the main types of headaches and their characteristics.
The Main Types of Headaches

Last update: 10 April, 2023

Headaches occur due to different causes and are very common in today’s society. It’s a nonspecific symptom that’s associated with many other primary diseases, but it’s also a problem in its own right, as is the case with migraines, for example. There are many types of headaches and we’ll take a look at the main ones here.

In general, women suffer from headaches more frequently than men. About 10% of the population suffer from migraines, but up to 40% suffer from tension headaches. Another type of headache is a cluster headache, which affects 1 in 1,000 people.

There are different types of headaches that are classified as primary and secondary.

Main types of headaches: Primary headaches


A migraine is a type of primary headache that affects approximately 10% of the population. It’s estimated to be the third most prevalent disorder in the world. It especially affects women between 25 and 55 years old.

The typical migraine headache is usually moderate to severe in intensity. In addition, it usually appears on only one side of the head (unilateral) and is pulsatile.

Migraines are classified into two main types:

  • Episodic migraine: These headaches appear in the form of a “migraine attack” that lasts between 4 and 72 hours. Migraine attacks are usually accompanied by nausea or the urge to vomit and hypersensitivity to light and noise.
  • Chronic migraines: In this case, the headache appears for 15 or more days a month, for more than three months in the year.
A woman with a migraine.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are a very common type of headache; it’s believed that they affect approximately 40% of the population. It usually appears between the ages of 25 and 30, affecting more women. In this case, the headache is characterized by being bilateral and with a feeling of tightness or heaviness.

Tension headache is divided into chronic or episodic:

  • Episodic tension headaches: These vary in frequency, and can even be less than once a month, but when they’re very frequent, they can be disabling for the person suffering from them. In these cases, drug treatment is usually necessary.
  • Chronic tension headache: In this case, the headache is persistent and significantly affects the person’s quality of life.

The mechanisms by which tension headaches occur are unclear. More peripheral mechanisms are believed to produce episodic-type headaches. In contrast, chronic tension headaches are believed to be more related to central-level processes.

A fairly frequent characteristic in people who suffer from this type of headache is the greater sensitivity of the muscles that surround the head, especially when the pain is greater. In addition, it isn’t always easy to distinguish between a tension headache and a migraine when it’s mild.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches appear between the ages of 20 and 40, and it’s about three times more common in men than in women.

This type of headache is severe and usually appears on only one side of the head, especially in the area around the eye. The attacks usually last between 15 and 180 minutes and the frequency of appearance can vary from once every other day to several times in the same day.

In addition, the attacks usually occur in series or “clusters”, which can last weeks or months, separated by months or even years. Some associated symptoms are watery eyes, nasal congestion and/or sweating on the face.

Depending on this, cluster headaches are also divided into episodic or chronic:

  • Episodic cluster headaches: Headaches appear for periods of between 7 days and a year, separated by periods of at least three months.
  • Chronic cluster headaches: Headaches appear for a year or more, with no period of remission or with remissions lasting less than 3 months.
A woman with a headache.

Other primary headaches

There are headaches due to many different causes that are considered primary because they are caused by physiological stimuli that are not, in principle, harmful to the body. The mechanisms by which these types of headaches occur aren’t known with certainty. For example, we can include in this group:

  • Headaches associated with physical exertion (such as coughing, exercise, or sexual activity)
  • Headaches due to cold or external pressure
  • Scalp pain

Secondary headaches

In this case, the headache appears because of another previous health problem. For example:

  • Headaches associated with damage to the head or neck.
  • Headaches due to a cranial or cervical venous disorder.
  • Headaches due to the taking or withdrawal of any medication.
  • Headaches related to an infection (for example, when we have the flu).
  • When we have any problem in the neck, eyes, nose, mouth, and teeth.
  • Headaches associated with psychiatric disorders.

Conclusion on headaches

There are many types of headaches. They are divided into primary or secondary, depending on whether or not they’re caused by another pathology or previous health problems. In general, they affect women more than men. The most common age of onset is between 20 and 55 years.

The most common primary headaches are migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. Headaches, in their different forms, affect a large part of the population, reducing their quality of life.

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