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Oww… My Head Hurts – Determining Your Headache Type

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints.  Almost every person will experience a headache at some point during their life (imagine being one of the few who never gets a headache!)

The majority of headaches can be classified as vascular (migraine and cluster headaches), tension headaches or a mixture of the two.  Less frequent causes of headaches include trauma, dental pain, jaw disorders, neck disorders, sinus pain and tumours.

So, with so many different types of headaches, knowing what kind of headache you have is important for you to understand and will have a big impact on conventional and Naturopathic treatment of your headache.

The Most Common HeadachesTypes of headaches

The most common headache types seen in clinical practice are (from most to least common):

  • Tension Headache
  • Chronic Daily Headache
  • Migraine
  • Cluster Headache

Important Features to Know About Your Headache

When trying to determine what type of headache you have there are a number of features you should consider.

  1. Onset: Does the headache come on suddenly, or slowly over the course of several hours?
  2. Regularity: Does the headache start at the same time everyday?
  3. Laterality: Is the headache on one side, both sides, or everywhere?
  4. Location: Where is the pain the worst?  At the back of the head, top of the head, sides of the head, base of the neck, behind the eyes, or elsewhere?
  5. Pain characteristic: How would you describe the pain?  Dull, band-like, throbbing, pounding, excruciating?
  6. Associated symptoms: Are there any other symptoms associated with the headache?  Any muscle tension, blurred vision, nausea, sensitivity to light, need to move around?
  7. Aggravations: Have you found anything that makes the headache worse?
  8. Ameliorations: Have you found anything that makes the headache better?

Determining Your Headache Type

Taking your answers to the questions above you can match the type of headache that most closely matches the features of your headache.


Onset Sudden, occasionally with an ‘aura’ preceding it (a sense that a headache is coming)
Regularity Not typically at the same time everyday, but exposure to triggers (such as sunlight, odours, fatigue or foods) can cause the migraine to occur with some regularity
Laterality One side, or both sides
Location Behind eyes, top of head, temples, sides of head
Pain Characteristic Throbbing, pounding
Associated symptoms Blurred visionLack of appetite, nausea, vomitingNeed for avoidance of light (photophobia) and sound (sonophobia)
Aggravations Light, noise, odours
Ameliorations Ergotamine drugsCaffeine (for some people)


Cluster Headaches

Onset Sudden
Regularity Occur in ‘clusters’ – regularly for several weeks or months usually followed by a time with no headaches
Laterality One sided
Location Behind the eyes, at the temples
Pain Characteristic Excruciating, throbbing
Associated symptoms Inability to lie still
Aggravations Very individual – some people have seasonal aggravations (worse in Spring) or time aggravations (worse with no sleep) or foods (alcohol, gluten, etc.)
Ameliorations Rocking, constant movement


Tension Headaches

Onset Slowly over the course of hours
Regularity Can be daily or during times of stress
Laterality Depends on location of muscle tension
Location Starts at base of skull or forehead and spreads over the entire head
Pain Characteristic Steady, constant, dull, pressure-sensation
Associated symptoms Muscle tension
Aggravations Stress, tight muscles
Ameliorations Muscle relaxation, massage, stretching


Chronic Daily Headaches

Onset Can be migraine-type or tension-type
Regularity Daily
Laterality Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)
Location Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)
Pain Characteristic Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)
Associated symptoms Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)
Aggravations Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)
Ameliorations Depends on type (migraine-type or tension-type)


What To Do Now?

So now that you have an idea of what kind of headache you have, where do you go from here?  The answer to that is more difficult.  Each type of headache has a different cause and a different treatment.  And each headache sufferer will respond to different interventions.  One person may need additional nutritional support, another person may need relaxation exercises and regular massage therapy, another may respond best to botanical medicine.

This is where Naturopathic Medicine can be extremely helpful for headache sufferers.  Each person is treated as an individual.  Your Naturopathic Doctor will help you determine the root cause of your headaches, and treat accordingly.  A Naturopath will figure out why you have headaches and remove that imbalance, helping you strive for a headache-free life.


The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only.  It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider.  Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.

Lisa Watson

Dr. Lisa Watson is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is a passionate writer and speaker and encourages her patients and readers to embrace their full, amazing, health potential. You can follow Dr. Watson on twitter at @drlisawatson or contact her at

30 thoughts to “Oww… My Head Hurts – Determining Your Headache Type”

  1. My head has been hurting for three days, it starts from behind the head. I’m 14. Please help?

  2. Sounds like it could be a stress headache. For a headache that is lasting more than 24 hours you should get in to see your Naturopathic Doctor or Medical Doctor to be sure it’s not something more serious.

    Make sure you are well hydrated, well rested and do some relaxation exercises every day.

    Yours in health,

  3. I have had my headache since Friday March 9, 2012. It starts at base of skull or forehead and spreads over the entire head all the way to my neck. It is amazing constant pain with sharp spurts in various locations similar to lightening bolts. The doctor has ordered a CT Scan and my boyfriend says it is just my allergy to pollen in GA.. 🙁

  4. It is now going on one week and two days for my headache. The best way to describe it is, every time my heart beats I feel it in my head. It’s worse in the back of my neck but pulsates to the top but just on one side. I’ve been to the ER and all they did was give me blood pressure and muscle spasm meds which both make my head hurt even more. I think I might have something more seriously wrong but don’t know what. Can you please help.

  5. If the headache is constant and very painful you need to get back to the ER. Take charge of your health – keep going back until someone listens. An unremitting headache can be a sign of something serious. I wish you health and wellness. All the best – Lisa

  6. Hello for the last 3 days I
    Have been waking up with a headache n it hasn’t went away. Its all over my head n goes down to my neck. The light hurts my eyes as well. It seems as if I get sharp pains at the top of head a lot n sometimes worse pain in different spots. I have taken ibuprofen n Advil but it won’t work. I notice that I also have a throbbing pain n my eyes and when I sniff my nose my head hurts worst as if someone is push ny head together on both sides. This is very painful I can’t even hold my head down without my head hurting. I dont know what to do or what kind of headaches I’m having. Please help me with ne information u may have thank u

  7. the both sides of my head hurts its been tow days and they won’t stop am 18 and am studying and not that much sleep please tell me what do i do DR.Liza

  8. It could be a tension headache, dehydration, lack of sleep or stress. Focus on returning to basics – drink water, get some exercise, find time to sleep. If it doesn’t improve with these measures, get in to a local Naturopathic Doctor for a consult and get to the root of what’s causing your headaches. Yours in health, Lisa.

  9. It sounds like it may be a sinus headache. Try using a Neti Pot or do some steam inhalation to clear your sinuses and see if that helps. If the pain is severe get to your medical doctor or naturopathic doctor for an assessment. Headaches are a sign from our bodies that shouldn’t be ignored. ~Lisa

  10. I’ve been suffering from headachs or what ever you can call this horrible pain, since i was 7. Im 20 today and still suffering. My headachs can go on for sometimes 2 weeks. i’ve been to several GP’S and none of them seem to find anything wrong. All of them had different explenations and medication and some of the medication actually made the pains worst than it was. everytime the pains is diffrent comes from a different place and have different ways in occuring. sometimes the pain is so bad that i need complete darkness around me with icepacks all over my body and sometimes sleeping takes it away. ive had the best migraine relievers on the market available in south africa and it didnt even relieve the pain. i can use any medication it just doesnt help at all. when the pain starts the only way of getting rid of it is waiting for it to pass by itself.

  11. I’m sorry that you’ve been suffering Danielle. That sounds quite painful. You should consider finding a Naturopathic Doctor to understand what imbalances may be leading to your migraines. A good place to start is with the South Africa Naturopathy Association – I’m sure you could find someone qualified to help you reach your goals.
    Yours in health – Lisa

  12. Dr. Lisa ,
    i have this terrible headache for the second day now and with a strange feeling of vibration in my head especially when i move or when i hear some noise …what does that mean and what should i do ? i also have some fever …
    thanks :))

  13. My head has been hurting since last night it hurts so bad like if someone hit me with a bat at the back of my head.took some pain medicine and still have pain please help

  14. i have been having headaches also, trying to avoid going into ER so hopefully you can give me advice ? i have been having pressure around my head eyes and nose area for the past 2weeks also followed by nausea and diarrhea also any suggestions on what it might be ?

  15. For the past 2weeks I have been getting constant headaches, pressure around nose and eyes followed by nausea at times. Any suggestions on what it can be?.

  16. It sounds like you may have a sinus infection. The increase in pressure in your sinuses can lead to quite painful headaches. You may need some immune support to help clear your sinuses and resolve your headaches.
    ~ Yours in health, Lisa

  17. If you have no history of headaches and you have a headache that comes on suddenly and with such intensity you should consider going to your doctor or the ER. There are many things that can cause headache – from atmospheric pressure changes, food sensitivities, muscular tension, dehydration or something more serious. It’s worth getting checked out.
    ~ Yours in health, Lisa

  18. Yes. There are strong links between high blood pressure and headaches. Because most headaches are vascular in origin any changes in the flow of blood through that vascular system can lead to headaches. If you have high blood pressure and headaches you should see a Doctor or a Naturopathic Doctor to help get your blood pressure down.


  19. my front head been hurting for a week and two days and my my upper nose feels like it’s kind of warm. I went to the doctor and he said he could be allergies?

  20. I get a throbbing migraine behind my right eye around the same time between 7 pm and 10 pm everyday….I usually have to lay down in a cool room with no sounds or any light for atleast an hour to defeat the problem. Its going on 2 weeks straight now. Could it be stress or related to a car accident that I was recently (March 10) involved in. I was rear ended and ended up seeing a chiropractor for approximately 2.5 months

  21. A headache can absolutely be caused by stress or a recent car accident. Anything that changes blood flow patterns to the head can lead to headaches. A consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor can help heal your body from your accident and identify ways in which stress may be impacting your physical health. An individualized approach will give you the best results – seek help from a qualified ND in your area.

    Yours in health ~ Lisa

  22. It absolutely could be allergies. Especially with a recent onset and associated nose symptoms. Get an allergy test and look at both environmental and food allergies. Sounds like some congestion in your sinuses needs to be relieved!


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