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types of headaches: symptoms, causes, treatments

Types of Headaches: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

by Tara Hackney, PT, DPT, OCS, KTTP1 Comment

We have all experienced a headache. Some headaches may be a mild annoyance, and others are brutally painful. Headaches can be defined as pain in any region of the head, but the intensity, duration, cause, and location can vary drastically per person and type of headache. Some studies suggest 1 in 20 adults experiences a headache every or nearly every day. In this blog, we’ll discuss the various types of headaches and how physical therapy can help.

Primary Headache vs. Secondary Headache2

A primary headache is when the headache itself is the main problem and not a symptom of an underlying disease or condition.

Secondary headaches are caused by another condition that triggers pain-sensitive areas in the neck and head. These types of headaches can be a warning sign of a more serious underlying condition such as a brain tumor, aneurysm, meningitis, or neck injury. These types of headaches can be excruciatingly painful.

Both primary and secondary headaches can be either episodic or chronic. Episodic headaches occur every so often, where chronic headaches are more consistent. Chronic headaches can occur most days and possibly last days at a time. Episodic headaches generally last half an hour to several hours.

Headache vs. Migraine

Headaches are a pain in the head or neck that vary in location and intensity. A migraine generally has additional symptoms such as nausea, pain behind one eye or ear, pain in the temples, seeing spots or flashing lights, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, temporary vision loss, or vomiting. This blog will focus on types of headaches rather than migraines.

Types of Headaches

Tension Type

Tension-type headaches are the most prevalent of primary headaches in adults. Tension headaches, often triggered by stress, are related to muscle trigger points in the head and neck region that radiate pain in the head and muscles in the suboccipital region (the area at the back of the skull where it meets the neck).

Physical therapy can treat tension-type headaches by focuses on manual therapy to the suboccipital region, including muscle soft tissue massage and joint mobility of the cervical spine and strengthening muscles for improved posture.3

Cluster Type

Cluster headaches usually occur on one side of the face at a time. They typically occur in a series of headaches each day lasting 15 minutes to 3 hours in length and a series of headaches 1-4 times per day. After one headache resolves, another soon follows. Additionally, cluster headaches can occur multiple days in a row. Individuals may be symptom-free for months between cluster periods. Many times, medication can treat cluster headaches.

Cervicogenic Type4

Cervicogenic headaches are headaches felt in the head but come from a neck region issue, making it a secondary headache. These headaches typically begin in the neck and radiate to one side of the head; pain may radiate to the front of the head or behind the eye. Often, those with cervicogenic headaches have a stiff neck or limited movement in their neck.

Physical therapy is the recommended treatment for cervicogenic headaches. Treatment focuses on manipulative therapy and therapeutic exercises. Since the origin of the pain is in the neck, physical therapy focuses on neck mobility and muscle flexibility, and overall posture. Depending on the evaluation, a physical therapist will determine an individualized program to address your symptoms to help decrease your headaches.

Other Types of Headaches Include:

  • Sinus headache
  • Hormone headache
  • Caffeine headache
  • Exertion headache
  • Hypertension headache
  • Rebound headache
  • Post-traumatic headache

The list above are examples of secondary headaches. Many times treatment focuses on the underlying condition, and the headaches improve when the condition is addressed.

If you have questions about your headaches, reach out to your closest Athletico clinic for a free assessment. Your physical therapist will provide you their best recommendation to help you feel better, faster.

Request a Free Assessment

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. World Health Organization
3. Jiang, Wenbin et al. “Effectiveness of physical therapy on the suboccipital area of patients with tension-type headache: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Medicine vol. 98,19 (2019): e15487. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000015487
4. Page P. Cervicogenic headaches: an evidence-led approach to clinical management. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011;6(3):254-266.

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About the Author:
Tara Hackney, a physical therapist in Marion, IA, enjoys working with all patient types, especially gymnasts, cheerleaders, and dancers. She is the prominent blogger for Athletico's Gymnastic/Cheer Program. With an orthopedic specialization and training in dry needling and Graston technique, Tara hopes to answer your questions about injuries and injury prevention in an easy-to-understand manner. She hopes to ease fears surrounding pain and injuries, address concerns about recovery, and provide tips to prevent injury. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her dog, reading, and watching her nephews play sports.

1 Comment

  1. Shammy Peterson

    It caught my attention when you said that chronic headaches occur most days and are more consistent. With this in mind, I will be sure to see a neurology specialist next week. Since I got involved in a minor auto accident more than 3 months ago, I have been experiencing headaches that could be severe at times.

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