Different Types of Debilitating Headaches

Headaches are a common ailment that most people experience at some point in their lives. While some headaches are mild and easily managed with over-the-counter medication, some types of headaches can be debilitating and severely impact a person’s quality of life. When the headache is not due to another disease (like a sinus infection), what could it be?

Common Mild-to-Moderate Headaches

Tension-type Headaches

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache; while they do not cause severe pain, the pain can be mild or moderate and highly burdensome for some people.  They cause dull, achy pain on both sides of the head and can be triggered by stress, anxiety, or lack of sleep. They are thought to be caused by muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. Tension headaches often respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle changes.

Common Moderate-to-Severe Headaches


Affecting more than ten percent of people worldwide, migraines are a common neurological disease characterized by moderate to severe pain and often described as a throbbing or pulsing sensation on one area of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances. Migraines can last from a few hours to several days and are often triggered by certain foods, stress, hormonal changes, or changes in sleep patterns.

Migraines come in four phases, premonitory, aura, headache/attack, and postdrome.

  1. Premonitory Phase: A few days prior to a migraine attack, some people experience changes in mood, fatigue, sensitivity to light or sounds, nausea, or neck pain.
  2. Aura Phase: About one-third of migraine sufferers experience an “aura” preceding the onset of a migraine, with visual disturbances like flashing lights or bright spots, temporary loss of vision or blurred vision, or numbness or tingling in the face and head.
  3. Headache or Attack Phase: The attack phase is defined by throbbing pain on one side or throughout both sides of the head lasting from a few hours up to three days.
  4. Postdrome Phase: After a migraine attack, some patients feel fatigued or exhausted and have difficulty concentrating.

Rebound Headaches

Rebound headaches, also known as medication overuse headaches, are very common in people with migraine. They are caused by the overuse of “as needed” pain medications, including over-the-counter medications like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, and prescription migraine medication. These headaches typically occur when a person has been taking “as needed” pain medications often (usually 10+ days per month) for several months.

Common Severe-to-Very-Severe Headaches

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches occur in about 1 in 1000 people (for reference, multiple sclerosis is 1 in 1000 and Parkinson’s is 1 in 500).  Cluster headaches typically occur in cycles, with periods of frequent attacks lasting from a few weeks to a few months, followed by periods of remission, though some patients do not experience a remission period. Each attack can last between 15 minutes and three hours. Cluster headaches cause intense, burning pain on one side of the head, often behind the eye. Other symptoms of cluster headache include drooping of the eyelid, swelling under or around the eye, watering and redness of the eye, a runny nostril, and swelling, all on the same side as the head pain.  Experts do not know the exact cause of cluster headaches.

The Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation is dedicated to increasing awareness about debilitating headaches and their treatments with the mission to find a cure for all debilitating headaches, including those discussed here. If you want to contribute to The Foundation’s mission and the furtherance of headache research, consider donating today.