How to Differentiate Between the Three Primary Types of Headaches

How to Differentiate Between the Three Types of Headaches

A headache can strike anywhere at any time – at work, at home, on the go. The pain can be dull and throbbing, or sharp and pinpointed.1-4

No matter when or where a headache comes on, you just want the pain to stop. But when it comes to managing and preventing headache symptoms, identifying the type of headache you have can help.

There are three main types of headaches: tension, migraine and cluster headaches. Each has its own causes and trademark symptoms.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headache.4 They are caused by a tightening of the muscles of the neck and scalp.4 This muscle constriction may be triggered by a number of different physical or environmental factors, including stiffness in the muscles of the shoulders and neck, stress, or lack of sleep.4

Tension headaches result in mild-to-moderate head pain and pressure that can  begin at the back of the head/neck and may move forward, or vice versa.1 These headaches are felt equally on both sides of the head, and can be  accompanied by pain  in the neck or shoulders.1 They may last from half an hour to several days.1 While uncomfortable and annoying, tension headaches are not dangerous to your health.1

Migraine Headaches

If you’ve ever had a migraine, chances are you knew you were dealing with a different kind of headache. Known triggers for migraine headaches are numerous and vary from person to person.2, 5 Each different trigger, however, sets off the same pathway in the brain that leads to abnormal neurological activity2, 5 and moderate-to-severe pain.2

Migraine headaches differ from tension headaches in that the pain is usually restricted to one side of the head and worsens over time.5 Pain behind the eyes and in the back of the head is common with migraines.5 Many migraine sufferers also experience sensitivity to light and noise, nausea and vomiting.2, 5

Some migraine attacks are preceded by a visual aura that may include seeing flashes of light or blurred vision.2, 5 Migraine headaches can last from a few hours to a few days,2 with attacks occurring once or twice a year in some people and up to several times a month in others..2

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are the least common type of headache, with men more likely to suffer than women.3 While their true cause is unknown, cluster headaches may be associated with abnormal activation of  nerves in the brain.3

The “cluster” of cluster headaches refers not to the location of the head pain, but rather to the grouping of the attacks in time. This is the main difference between cluster headaches and tension or migraine headaches—cluster headaches regularly recur over a certain period of time.3, 6 People may have one to three cluster headaches per day for several weeks or months (the “cluster” period).3 Attacks may then stop altogether, only to return at some later time3

Cluster headaches bring the most intense pain of all the headaches, usually described as a excruciating, searing or burning.3, 6 The pain comes on quickly on one side of the head, around and behind the eye, then worsens and may last from 30 minutes to two hours.3, 6 Other symptoms include eye swelling, tearing and redness and blocked or runny nose only on the side of the head that is affected.3, 6


  1. Lifting the Burden. Information available for people affected by tension-type headache.Available at: http://www.w-h-a.org/assets/6/E0ED62DA-F33B-7800-997D29F3966BCFA3_document/What_is_tension-type_headache.pdf.
  2. Lifting the burden. Information for people affected by migraine. Available at:http://www.w-h-a.org/assets/0/E0E0E230-E5CC-D51C-5D382D5DEFA369DA_document/What_is_migraine.pdf.
  3. Lifting the Burden. Information for people affected by cluster headache. Available at: http://www.l-t-b.org/assets/98/91498A98-D07F-9C38-9BCC46611D89FE2F_document/What_is_cluster_headache.pdf.
  4. US Medline Plus. Tension headache. Available at:
  5. US Medline Plus. Migraine. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000709.htm.
  6. US Medline Plus. Cluster headache. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000786.htm.