Although most people suffer headaches from time to time, chronic headaches plague up to 5 percent of Americans, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you seek medical treatment for your headaches, your doctor will want to investigate the type of headaches you’re experiencing. Migraines, tension headaches and sinus headaches can all be causes of chronic or episodic pain. Each type of headache displays its own distinct symptoms.
Migraines are one of the most debilitating forms of head pain. Severe, throbbing pain usually concentrates itself on one side of the head or in a particular area, such as behind the eyes or above the left eyebrow. Additional symptoms may be nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light, sounds and odors. Physical activity can make migraines worse. Prior to a migraine attack, some people experience visual disturbances known as “auras” that can look like bright lights or jagged lines. Migraine headaches can last from a few hours to a few days.
A sensation of tightness across the forehead, down the neck, at the back of the head and/or across the shoulders characterizes a tension headache. The pain is usually dull and can range from mild to moderate. Although sometimes accompanied by a decrease in appetite, the nausea common with migraines is not usually present with tension headaches. Physical activity usually does not aggravate a tension headache.
Migraines are often misdiagnosed as sinus headaches; understanding the difference between the two types of headache can help you find effective treatment more quickly. Like migraines and tension headaches, sinus headaches can be chronic. However, sinus headaches usually occur during or after an inflammation or infection of the sinuses, such as an allergy attack or cold. Pain at the bridge of the nose and tenderness and pain around the eyes, cheeks and forehead characterize sinus headaches. In addition, sinus headaches may worsen when you bend over and lie down, whereas lying down can relieve symptoms of both migraines and tension headaches.
Although uncomfortable, migraines, tension headaches and sinus headaches are not usually dangerous. However, you should see a doctor for any type of headache that interferes with your daily life. In addition, you should seek medical attention immediately if a severe headache comes on suddenly or if it is accompanied by fever, stiff neck, numbness, confusion, seizure or difficulty speaking. Finally, see a doctor for any severe headache that follows a blow to the head, coughing, sudden movement or exertion.
The treatment you pursue will vary depending on your headache type. Both preventative and abortive medications exist for treating migraines and tension headaches. Preventative medications reduce the number of headaches you experience, while abortive medications treat a headache already in progress. In addition, lifestyle changes such as stress management can reduce migraines and tension headaches. Decongestants and antibiotics may be used to treat sinus headaches. Although over-the-counter medications may relieve symptoms of all three types of headaches, overuse of painkillers can actually cause headache frequency to increase. As such, you should discuss alternatives with a doctor if you are taking painkillers for your headaches more than nine times per month.