Every person’s headache is different. Some feel a lingering, dull pain for days whereas others experience a sharp, throb in the back of their head for a few minutes. Whatever your experience is with headaches, the common denominator is the impact it creates in everyday life.
According to the Global Burden of Disease study, headache disorders are one of the most disabling illnesses in the world.
The occasional headache is nothing to be concerned about, but some headaches can be a sign of a more serious problem. By understanding the different types of headaches and their symptoms, you can be more aware of when to seek medical help.
What are the Types of Headaches?
A headache can manifest in various ways, and there are different types that you may experience in your lifetime. Each type of headache has its own set of symptoms and possible causes.
Here are some of the most common types of headaches you might experience:
A migraine headache is often characterized by a throbbing or pulsing sensation on one side of the head. It is usually due to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Migraines can cause nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people who experience a migraine headache may also have an aura, which are visual disturbances that can include seeing flashes of light or wavy lines.
Prevalence studies for tension-type headaches vary widely, but this condition is one of the most common. Many describe this headache as a dull, aching sensation that spreads across both sides of the head. Tension-type headaches are often due to stress, lack of sleep, or dehydration.
Cluster headaches are less common than tension headaches or migraines, but they are more severe. This type of headache is characterized by a sharp, throbbing pain that typically occurs on one side of the forehead.
A cluster headache often strikes in “clusters,” meaning they come and go frequently. They may also happen at the same time of day for several days or weeks.
Headaches can happen if you have a sinus infection. It is an acute infection or chronic inflammation of the sinuses, which can be due to viruses multiplying in the sinus cavities.
A sinus headache can cause throbbing pain in the forehead, cheeks and nose bridge. The pain may worsen when you bend over or lie down. Sinus headaches are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as a thick nasal discharge, fever and fatigue.
Does Headache Location Matter?
In several headache types, the pain’s location can give clues about the possible causes. A complete headache chart and symptom checker is a useful start.
For example, a headache that is only on one side of the head is more likely to be a migraine or cluster headache. A sinus headache will often cause severe pain in specific areas, such as behind the eyes or forehead. However, it is not foolproof to determine the type of headache you are experiencing.
Which Headaches are Serious?
Most headaches are not serious; the pain may be due to lack of sleep or a result of stress. But some pain may indicate a deeper health problem or signal something more worrying.
Consider the following symptoms in determining whether your headache pain is serious:
- A headache that lasts for more than a week
- A throbbing and painful headache that is not relieved by over-the-counter medication
- Headache accompanied by tingling, numbness and weakness in the limbs
- Migraine headaches that lead to facial drooping
- A headache with loss of sense of smell, taste, or hearing
- Painful migraine headaches that causes double vision
- Headaches that wake you up with a dull, stabbing, burning or throbbing pain
- When the pain comes with a stiff neck and fever of higher than 102 to 104°F
- Headaches and weakness on one side of your body
If you experience any of the above symptoms, see a doctor immediately and they may refer you to a neurologist. A specialist will be able to diagnose your condition properly and recommend the best treatment plan.
Why Does My Brain Feel Like It’s Pulsating?
You can feel a throbbing sensation in your head for many reasons. But in most cases, a pulsating headache is due to changes in blood flow. The blood vessels in your brain may dilate or contract, which can cause pulsating pain. And since the brain doesn’t have pain receptors, the pulsing sensation is often felt as a headache.
What Does it Mean if Your Headache is Throbbing?
A consistent throbbing headache is often a sign of migraine headaches. However, a sharp, throbbing and sudden headache can indicate other disorders. So it’s best to consult with a medical provider to rule out other potential causes.
What Can Cause Throbbing Headaches?
Aside from specific headache types, such as migraines and cluster headaches, a throbbing headache can be caused by other factors such as the following:
Medication Overuse Headache
Taking pain relief medications too often can lead to rebound headaches. It means that the pain relievers you are taking for your headache can cause more headaches. It is a vicious cycle that can be tricky to break. The only way to stop rebound headaches is to wean off the medication and find another way to manage the headache pain.
Some foods can trigger a throbbing headache or migraine. These include aged cheeses, chocolate, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and foods with MSG. If you notice a headache after eating certain foods, it is best to avoid them.
On the other hand, hunger can also cause a throbbing headache. When blood sugar drops, it can lead to dehydration and headaches. So, make sure to eat regularly and drink plenty of fluids.
Caffeine Withdrawal Headache
Suddenly seizing your usual caffeine intake can result in withdrawal headaches. Caffeine narrows the blood vessels, and when you suddenly stop, these vessels will dilate again and cause pain. Caffeine withdrawal headaches are common after surgery since patients are not allowed to eat or drink before the procedure.
You can prevent caffeine withdrawal by slowly decreasing your intake over time. Or you can try to find other sources of caffeine, such as decaf coffee or tea. Nonetheless, a caffeine withdrawal headache is not a serious condition and will often go away on its own.
Excessive amounts of alcohol in your system can cause your vessels to dilate and lead to a throbbing headache the next day. And since binge drinking also causes dehydration, this can make your headache even worse.
Emotional Stress and Upset Headache
When emotions run high, the body releases hormones that can affect the vessels and cause a throbbing headache. Most headaches of this kind are often short-lived and go away after the emotional episode has passed.
Hormonal Imbalance Headache
Particularly in women, changes in hormone levels can cause headaches. These include puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and using birth control pills. If you have a headache that is linked to your menstrual cycle, it is called menstrual migraine.
What Does Throbbing Pain Indicate?
An excruciating pain accompanying a throbbing headache can indicate a severe disorder. These can be life-threatening and might require immediate medical attention.
Having dangerously high blood pressure can cause a stroke. One of the signs of a stroke is a throbbing headache. If you have this kind of headache, it is best to call your hospital and seek emergency medical attention.
Dissecting aneurysm of the brain
Aneurysms are bulges in the blood vessel wall. When an aneurysm ruptures, it can cause brain bleeding, leading to a throbbing headache. It is a medical emergency, and you need to call 911 right away.
An intracranial hematoma is a blood clot in the brain. It can be caused by a head injury or an underlying disorder such as hypertension, leading to a throbbing headache. If you have this kind of headache, it is best to seek professional medical advice immediately.
Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
TIA is a warning sign of an impending stroke. It is due to a temporary blockage in the blood supply of the brain. You may also experience loss of limb movement, slurred speech, and vision problems.
Migraine with aura
A migraine accompanied by neurological symptoms such as dizziness, tingling, and visual disturbance is called a migraine with aura. It is more severe than a regular migraine and can last for hours or even days.
How to Treat a Throbbing Headache
A throbbing headache accompanied by loss of consciousness, seizure, paralysis, or a slurred speech requires emergency medical attention. In that case, immediately call 911.
For less severe throbbing headaches, try the following home remedies to ease the condition:
- Get specific preventive medications for your headache type
- Use a heating pad or ice pack on the affected area
- Practice stress management techniques, such as yoga and meditation
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids
- Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid food triggers, such as aged cheeses and chocolate
- If you have a migraine, take a pain reliever as soon as possible
For specific types of headaches, your doctor may prescribe the following remedies:
- Triptan nasal spray or DHE injections for cluster headaches
- Steroids or epidural blood patch for low pressure headaches
- Opioids for pain relief of migraines or beta blockers for preventing this type of headache
Don’t Ignore a Throbbing Headache
A throbbing headache can be caused by a variety of factors, some more serious than others. If you are experiencing a throbbing pain, it is important to seek medical attention to rule out any potentially life-threatening condition. There are also many at-home remedies that can provide relief from less severe headaches. The above are just a few examples. Stay hydrated, avoid triggers, and practice stress-management techniques to help prevent throbbing headaches.