Take a look at our abbreviated index of headache types and see if any resemble yours. Then consult your doctor about getting started improving your quality of life.
Types of Migraine Headache Conditions
Migraine is characterized by throbbing or pulsating pain quality of moderate to severe pain intensity. It is often one-sided, associated with nausea/vomiting, and with sensitivity to light/sound. From there, it can be further classified in many ways:
Episodic migraine: A migraine headache occurring fewer than 15 days per month.
Chronic migraine: A migraine headache occurring 15 or more days per month.
Migraine without aura: Previously called “common migraine,” this has no aura symptoms.
Migraine with aura: Less common than migraine without aura, this was previously called “classic migraine.” This headache is preceded by aura symptoms, including visual, sensory, and/or speech changes. (Most people with migraine with aura also get headaches without aura.) Some specific types:
- Migraine with brainstem aura: Migraine with brainstem aura symptoms include slurred speech, vertigo, ringing in the ears, changes in hearing, double vision, changes in balance or coordination, and decreased level of consciousness. Previously called “basilar migraine.”
- Hemiplegic migraine: This is a rare type of migraine in which the aura consists of profound weakness on one side of the body, and occurs in exactly the same way every time (not to be confused with MUMS, below).
- Retinal migraine: Most people with visual aura have vision changes in both eyes. With retinal migraine, an uncommon form of migraine, the aura consists of vision changes in just one eye.
Abdominal migraine: Attacks of moderate to severe abdominal pain associated with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and/or pallor. These are essentially a migraine that occurs in the abdomen instead of the head. Most common in children, and most children with abdominal migraine go on to develop more typical migraine later in life.
Cyclic vomiting syndrome: Attacks of intense nausea and vomiting, often associated with pallor and lethargy. They usually occur in children and are considered a gastrointestinal cousin of migraine. Children may go on to develop more typical migraine later in life.
Migraine with unilateral motor symptoms (MUMS): This migraine occurs with a fluctuating degree of weakness on one side (often with numbness or tingling) that is not as profound as hemiplegic migraine; most people experiencing MUMS are still able to walk and perform necessary tasks.
Status migrainosus: a debilitating migraine attack lasting more than 72 hours.
Vestibular migraine: Characterized by significant vertigo, dizziness, imbalance, ringing in the ears, and/or hearing changes. These symptoms may be more difficult to bear than the headache itself.
Types of Non-Migraine Headaches
Tension-type headache: Usually less severe than a migraine, this headache tends to be on both sides of the head and have a pressing or tightening quality of pain (not pulsating/throbbing). It does not cause nausea or vomiting. It rarely may cause sensitivity to light or sound, but not both. It does not cause the extent of disability as migraine, though rarely, very frequent tension-type headaches can interfere with daily life.
Cluster headache: This headache presents with very severe, one-sided pain, usually around the eye or temple, that lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. Many people have a sense of extreme agitation or restlessness and will pace during an attack. These attacks may occur several times a day and often at a predictable time of day (frequently at night). They are called “cluster” because attacks occur in “cluster periods” that last weeks or months, and then spontaneously go away for months or years. Cluster headache is generally regarded as one of the most severe types of pain. They’re the most common of a classification of rare headaches called Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC) headaches, all of which are one-sided and have prominent autonomic symptoms such as pupil changes, eyelid drooping or swelling, eye tearing, facial flushing, nasal congestion/runniness, or sweating.
Cold-stimulus headache: This headache type is brought on by something cold applied to the head or ingested or inhaled. This is your classic “ice cream headache” or “brain freeze,” and is very common in the general population.
Epicrania fugax: With this headache type, episodes of brief head pain travel across the head (back to front or front to back) in a line or zigzag pattern. It may occur in other headache types like migraine. Other structural causes of pain must be ruled out by a doctor.
Exploding head syndrome: Despite its terrifying name, this syndrome is benign. The attack usually happens just as you’re falling asleep and occurs as a sensation of a sudden loud noise, like an explosion in your head, that wakes you up, sometimes also with the sensation of seeing a bright light. It is not painful in most people, but often gets lumped in with headache syndromes because of the unusual sensation of something exploding in your head. It occurs in about 10 percent of the population.
Hypnic headache (“alarm clock headache”): This headache type is more common in people over age 50. It occurs only during sleep and causes you to wake up. It may occur at roughly the same time every night, but is much less severe than cluster headache. The headache itself can feel like a tension-type one or a migraine. Sleep disorders and other medical problems need to be ruled out by a doctor.
New daily persistent headache (NDPH): This headache is continuous and lasts at least three months. Most people can remember the exact day it begins. It can have features of migraine, tension-type headache or both. Other medical problems should be ruled out by a doctor.
Nummular headache: This headache type occurs only in a small (1-6 cm) area of the scalp. The name comes from the Latin word for coin (“coin-shaped headache”), and it can be continuous pain or come and go. Most people with this headache can trace out exactly where they feel the pain. This distinct “border” of pain makes it unlike most other headache types. Other structural causes of pain must be ruled out by a doctor.
Primary cough headache: This headache is brought on only by coughing or straining. “Primary” means that it is not the symptom of another disorder. But a headache that occurs only with coughing can be a sign of another medical problem and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Primary exercise headache (“primary exertional headache”): This headache type occurs only during or after strenuous exercise. “Primary” means that it is not the symptom of another disorder. But a headache that occurs only with exertion can be a sign of another medical problem and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Primary headache associated with sexual activity: This headache type occurs only during sexual activity. “Primary” means that it is not the symptom of another disorder. But a headache that occurs only with sexual activity can be a sign of another medical problem and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Primary stabbing headache (“ice pick headache” or “jabs and jolts”): This head pain occurs as a sudden single stab or a series of stabs, each lasting a few seconds. It is not associated with autonomic symptoms (making it different from TACs), and may occur on its own, but often occurs in people who also have migraine.
Thunderclap headache: This severe headache starts abruptly and reaches maximum intensity within one minute. It can be caused by many different things, but the most important one to rule out is a ruptured aneurysm, which would dictate an immediate trip to the emergency room.
Trigeminal neuralgia: This headache causes episodes of very severe, shooting or electric-shock-like pain on one side of face, usually lasting just a few seconds. It may occur many times a day, and be triggered by chewing or touching the face in a specific location. Other medical problems need to be ruled out by a doctor.
An accurate diagnosis is crucial to treating your specific type of headache or migraine. When you know your own symptoms, you can work with your doctor to connect the dots. Every step you take gets you closer to putting greater control within reach.