It’s critical to identify which type of headache you suffer from—tension, cluster, sinus, or migraine, so that the correct treatment can be prescribed. Headaches come with symptoms as unique as the headache sufferer. There are a number of common symptoms which can help you determine which type of headache you are experiencing.
Tension Headache Symptoms
This is by far the most common type of headache, affecting as many 90% of people at some point in their life. It’s caused by tightness in the muscles of the scalp and the back of the neck.
Symptoms of a tension headache are clear. During a tension headache, you may experience:
- Squeezing pain on both sides of the head, although one-sided pain is possible
- Pain located over the forehead, temples, or back of the neck
- Radiation of pain into the neck and shoulders
- Moderate pain
- Pain that gradually appears
- Stress or stressful situations prior to the headache
Tension headaches do not usually have symptoms like light or sound sensitivity or nausea and vomiting. While the pain appears gradually, there is not usually an aura or any warning signs that a tension headache is about to appear.
Triggers: Stress or Fatigue
Often mistaken for a tension or sinus headache, a migraine is a neurological condition caused by an overreactive “switch” in the brain stem.
A typical migraine will have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Moderate to severe pain
- Pain located on one or both sides of the head
- Pulsating or throbbing pain
- Pain made worse with activity
- Pain that may impair your ability to function “normally”
- Nausea, with or without vomiting
- Light sensitivity
- Sound sensitivity
Twenty percent of sufferers have aura or symptoms such as visual disturbances that precede the onset of pain. If you experience an aura before having your migraine, you may have one or more of the following issues:
- Sparkling flashes of light in your vision
- Zigzag types of lines in your vision
- Slowly expanding blind spots
- Tingling, “pins and needles” sensation in one arm or leg
- Language or speech problems
Triggers: Stress, hormonal changes, weather changes, certain foods (detailed below)
Migraine Food Triggers
According to the University of California at Berkeley, certain types of foods and drinks may be responsible for triggering a migraine in some people. This can happen frequently for some, or more occasionally for others. However, a food that triggered a migraine for you last month, may not cause the same reaction again.
The most common food culprits out there contain tyramine or phenylethylamine, two amino acids found in chocolate, aged or fermented cheese.
Meat & Dairy Triggers
Processed Meats: canned, aged, or cured meat like hot dogs, bologna, sausage, pepperoni, and salami.
Dairy Triggers: fermented dairy products—such as sour cream or buttermilk—may induce migraines. Popular cheeses like cheddar, blue, Brie, and all hard and “moldy” cheeses.
Fruit & Veggie Triggers
Fruit Triggers: raisins, papayas, plums, bananas, avocados, and figs. Red-skinned apples and pears, apple juice and cider. Overripe bananas and avocados have also been found to be especially problematic for those with migraines.
Vegetable Triggers: string beans, snow peas, onions, and raw garlic. A number of beans have also been identified as possible triggers, including lima, navy, garbanzo, pinto, and pole beans.
Sourdough bread, freshly baked yeast bread, and coffee cake can cause a migraine.
Pizza fans take note: any type of crackers or bread containing cheese may trigger migraines
Non-Alcoholic: hot chocolate, cocoa, and chocolate milk. Caffeine is another possible trigger, even when consumed in small amounts.
Alcoholic Beverages: beer, red wine, and sherry.
Sweet & Dessert Triggers
Sweet/Desserts: desserts containing chocolate or nuts—including chocolate ice cream, cake, pie, or cookies. Steer clear of all dough or pastries containing yeast, and mincemeat pie.
Food Additive Triggers
Many other food additives are also known to increase the chances for a migraine. Check labels carefully and avoid foods that contain:
- Nitrites are used mostly as a preservative and for added flavor and found in hot dogs, deli meats, pepperoni, sausages (including chicken, turkey and soy sausages), jerky (beef and turkey), corned beef, or other foods that have been cured, smoked, pickled, or canned. To stay safe, look for nitrite-free varieties of these items at the grocery store and steer clear of them when dining out.
- Sulfites are a preservative commonly found in most dried fruits (including prunes, figs, and apricots), wine (white and red), and many processed foods.
- Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener, can also be a migraine trigger. (also known as NutraSweet and Equal)
- Other Additive Triggers: monosodium glutamate (MSG), yeast extract, hydrolyzed or autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), sodium caseinate, and kombu extract.
Cluster Headache Symptoms
Cluster headaches are quite uncommon, affecting less than 1% of adults, and more commonly men. Because they tend to occur at the same time every day, doctors suspect the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls the body clock) is involved. Symptoms of cluster headaches are fairly unique, however so it is good to understand the common symptoms.
- Repetitive headaches occurring on and off for weeks at a time
- Quickly-appearing pain on one side of the head, usually behind the eye
- Stuffy nose and watery eye
- Very severe pain
Triggers: Alcohol. Also more common in smokers.
Sinus Headache Symptoms
These are surprisingly uncommon as most people who think they have one actually have a migraine. Almost half of people with migraines have runny or stuffy nose or teary eyes with their headaches.
- Pain around the nose and eyes
- Runny nose
- Pain can be mild to severe
Triggers: An acute sinus infection
Problematic Warning Signs
Some headaches are due to more urgent medical conditions. If any of the following occur, call your physician:
- Severe headache with stiff neck, vomiting, and light sensitivity
- Headache following a head injury
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
- Any headache lasting for more than 24 hours in someone without a history of headaches
As with any medical condition, discuss the symptoms you are having with your healthcare provider in order to make a proper diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatments.