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February 19, 2014

What causes a headache?
Triggers, prevention and treatment

What causes a headache?
Triggers, prevention and treatment
What causes a headache?
Triggers, prevention and treatment

Last updated: April 20, 2015

Jennifer Roche


Category: Everyday health

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Knowing what causes a headache, as well as the kind of headache you are prone to suffer from can help. We tell you the causes, types, triggers and preventions to help you be ‘headache aware’.
What causes a headache?<br /> Triggers, prevention and treatment

Do you get headaches? If so, then you know how bad they can make you feel and how they can ruin your day. Knowing what causes a headache, as well as the kind of headache you are prone to suffer from can help you to avoid them. Here, you can get the lowdown on the causes of headaches, the most common types of headache, and how to prevent or treat these everyday irritants.

What causes a headache?

What type of headache do I have?

Tension headaches

Migraine headaches

Sinus headaches

Cluster headaches

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What causes a headache?

Headaches, or cephalagia, can occur on two levels; muscular and neurological. Simply put, it means that some headaches occur due to muscle tension in the face, head and neck while others are caused by changes in the brain on a hormonal, vascular and cellular level. As the brain itself does not possess any pain receptors, the pain is felt by the tissues surrounding the brain, hence the term ‘headache’. Many factors can cause a headache, but first, it’s important to be aware of the different types of headache there are. By knowing what kind you have and what causes a headache, you can then choose the right prevention and treatment to limit the occasions you might get one.

What types of headache are there?

There are two different types of headaches; primary headaches and secondary headaches. Primary headaches occur independently of any other condition. Secondary headaches usually arise out of any already existing condition or illness. Here, we will focus mainly on primary headaches.

The most common types of headache:

  • Tension headache
  • Migraine headache
  • Sinus headache - (This is a secondary headache but is quite common so worth including)
  • Cluster headache

What type of headache do I have?

Pain location Feels like Duration Other symptoms Headache type
Whole head Tight band of pressure 30 mins – 7 days Stiff neck/shoulders Tension headache
Side of head/eyes Throbbing/pulsating Several hours- 2 days Nausea, vomiting, fatigue Migraine
Forehead, eyes, nose, ears Throbbing/pressure Hours-1 week Runny nose, puffy eyes Sinus headache
Side of head/behind eye Intense stabbing/burning 15 mins – 4 hours per attack Red watering eyes, runny or blocked nose, facial sweating Cluster headache

Let’s take a look at each of these headache types in detail:

Tension headaches

Tension Headache

The most common type of headache, a tension headache is usually caused by muscle tension in the head, face and neck. A tension headache feels like a tight band around the head and the pain feels constant rather than throbbing.

What causes a tension headache? Stress, anxiety, depression, sitting still for too long, bad posture, jaw clenching, caffeine, too-tight hair ties, smoking/second-hand smoke.


  • Relaxation techniques
  • Move more and stretch
  • Adjust working position often
  • Reduce caffeine intake
  • Loosen hair ties


  • Analgesics/anti-inflammatories (aspirin, ibuprofen, Neurofen and similar)
  • Alternative remedy: a drop of lavender oil rubbed into the temples. (Note: Never use essential oils if pregnant unless administered by a qualified aromatherapist)

Migraine headache

These are more long-term than most other headaches, but can also be more debilitating. Migraine sufferers describe the pain as a throbbing, pulsating headache, usually on one side of the head & behind the eye which can last for hours. Other symptoms include visual distortion, auras or flashing lights. A metallic taste in the mouth, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Women are three times more likely to suffer with migraine than men.

What causes migraine headaches? Bright light, extreme temperatures, certain foods and additives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), smoking, alcohol, hormonal fluctuation, certain medications such as some birth control pills and codeine.


  • Due to the long-term and debilitating nature of migraines, being aware of your triggers and avoiding them can help to prevent a migraine attack


  • Over-the-counter medication such as NSAID's (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs)
  • Prescription medications such as tricyclic antidepressants and beta blockers
  • Complementary/alternative treatments: Yoga, acupuncture and taking Feverfew
  • Lying down in a darkened room

Sinus headache

These are usually a direct result of an inflammation of the nasal passages and sinuses. The pain manifests as pressure around the eyes, cheeks and forehead and is described as a throbbing headache. Sinus headaches can be mistaken for tension headaches or migraine so check for puffiness, runny nose and congestion as additional symptoms.

What causes sinus headaches? Head cold, hay fever, nasal congestion, infection of the nasal passages/sinuses.


  • Anti-histamines
  • Avoid smoking/second-hand smoke
  • Eat a healthy diet or take vitamins to boost immune system to reduce colds
  • Use a humidifier in the home


  • Anti-histamines
  • Nasal decongestants
  • Anti-inflammatories for pain
  • Irrigation of the nasal passages with a saline solution
  • Alternative treatment: Salt therapy

Cluster headaches

A series of short, intense headaches, usually felt behind one eye or the side of the head. These are one of the most painful types of headache, and can last from minutes to hours. They are nicknamed ‘suicide headaches’ because of their extreme intensity. Cluster headache sufferers can experience a series of attacks over a period of hours/days. These attacks, known as cluster bouts, can happen frequently over weeks/months then not occur again for years (remission). Some sufferers never get any pain-free periods and they are called chronic. Although not life-threatening, cluster headaches are still extremely painful. Statistically, men tend to suffer with this condition more than women.

What causes cluster headaches? What causes a headache of this type is still relatively unknown, but it’s suspected that they are caused by vascular/hormonal changes in the brain. Studies have also shown that this condition could be genetically inherited. In other words, if you are closely related to somebody who suffers from cluster headaches your chances of having them is increased. Cluster headaches occur on a neurological level, similar to migraine, but are more short-lived. Triggers include alcohol consumption and strong chemical smells.


  • Verapamil, a calcium channel blocker is used at high dosages to prevent attacks. An ECG has to be performed before starting Verapamil and before each dosage increase.
  • Corticosteroids/antiepileptics under prescription from your GP.
  • Melatonin – 15mg daily, taken before bed.


  • Triptans: As cluster headaches are so intensely painful, abortive agents such as sumatriptan is injected or inhaled to stop the attack. This must be prescribed by a GP or neurologist.
  • Oxygen: Breathing pure oxygen during an attack can be a fast- acting form of pain relief. Again, this must be prescribed by your GP.

Where to seek help: If you suffer from cluster headaches, visit OuchUK for help, support and advice. Or call their support helpline on: 01646 651 979

If you frequently suffer from headaches, it’s always important to pinpoint the cause of these. Often, persistent headaches can be a precursor to something more serious, so seeking medical advice is always recommended. It can help to keep a ‘headache journal’ like the one below which you can bring along to show your GP.

Date Duration How it felt Suspected trigger How you treated it
31/01/14 1.5 hours Constant pain around head Work stress 2 x Aspirin

If you are a headache sufferer, I hope you found this article helpful. If you would like to leave your feedback or comments below it will be appreciated. Remember, prevention is always better than cure so it’s good to know what causes a headache. Be aware of your triggers and stay headache-free!