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Most Common Types of Headaches and Their Surprising Causes

What are the common types of headaches, symptoms, headache causes, and best solutions?

women with hand on head headache searching

When you think of someone with a headache, you probably think about someone sitting at their desk, hunched forward, with hands massaging their temples. Headaches, and the more severe Migraine, are becoming more common in our strained society. When asked, “What is the cause of headaches?”, most reply with the one word answer of “Stress”... but that’s only part of the answer. We are surrounded by stress everyday, from sitting in poor chairs, rushing to and from work, caffeine top-ups, deadlines, family stress... The list goes on.

The question is, with two people absorbing the same amount of stress, how come one gets a headache while the other doesn’t?

Types of Headaches

types of headaches chart

The brain itself is actually insensitive to pain. Most common forms of headache affect:

  • Tissue covering the brain

  • Muscles, blood vessels, and nerve fibers surrounding the scalp, face, occiput (back of the head), and neck

There are a recognized 129 different types of headaches (ouch)! Most commonly they are categorized as tension, cluster, migraine, and hormonal. All of these can elicit sensations like dull, sharp, heavy, throbbing, pounding, and ache.

We often get asked, “Do headaches on the left side compared to headaches on the right side of the head tell us anything?”. Unfortunately no, but it does tell us they are one sided and not likely due to the common tension headache.

Tension Headaches

The most common type of headache is the tension headache. Described as pulling, pressing, band-like tension across both sides of the frontal head, this pain can come and go for 30 minutes, or stay up to about 7 days. We often see people in our office who have had it “for years”, and they thought it was just normal work stress. Contrary to common belief, this type of headache is NOT from overly tight muscles. What studies show is that Nervous System Dysfunction is the main cause. As a Chiropractor, detecting and correcting these root causes allow us to help relieve and prevent further episodes of tension headaches.

Cluster Headaches

cluster headache one sided headache left side right side

Cluster headaches are the most severe, often nick-named the “suicide headache”. They typically involve only one side of the head for a short time (5-10 minutes), often close to or behind the eye, but have consistent patterns with attacks up to 8 times a day! Often they can occur daily for weeks, then go into remission. They are 6 times more common in men than women.

Headaches on the left side of the head and right side of the head that follow these patterns may be an indication of cluster headaches.

Migraine Headache

migraine shown as brain and head electrical pain

A mild to intense pulsating, pounding, throbbing headache typically on one side of the head is typical of a Migraine Headache. Attacks often have a “prodrome” and “aura” before an attack. A prodrome is a specific change in your body before a migraine, which is often unique to the individual. They can arise even a day or two before the attack occurs. It can often be:

  • Irritability

  • Neck Stiffness

  • Hunger or thirst

  • Fatigue and difficulty concentrating

  • Yawning

  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Following the prodrome, you may also have an aura, which can create:

  • Visual disturbances, seeing colors or distortions

  • Temporary loss of sight

  • Tingling and numbness in the body

If the warning signs continue, and the Nervous System Dysfunction hasn’t been arrested, it can progress to a full blown migraine headache. These attacks can last anywhere from 4 hours to a few days long. At this stage you can feel:

  • Throbbing, piercing, or drilling sensation in the head

  • Burning sensation

  • Nausea which can often induce vomiting

  • Giddiness

  • Nasal congestion

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Neck and shoulder stiffness

Hormonal Headache

hormonal headache preganant woman in pain

One of the more difficult headaches to diagnose, women can experience headaches and migraines from changes in the estrogen levels. Estrogen is a hormone that helps regulate reproduction, growth during pregnancy and puberty, and often a quick drop can cause sudden headaches. Hormones can change quickly in female patients just before a menstrual cycle, pregnant, in menopause, or in the last week of menstruation if they are taking contraceptives. While laboratory tests can help identify hormone markers that are very out of normal range, it’s often difficult to confirm with testing. Look to see if a pattern develops around your menstrual cycle, or if there have been any changes with your thyroid function or stress levels.

Poor Nutrition Causing Headaches

poor nutrition causing headaches alcohol cheese no vegetables

Alcohol, certain cheeses, caffeine, and even excessively eating meat can be triggers for headaches. It’s always a good idea to track your food intake previous to your headaches to see if there is a pattern. Those with chronic headaches also may be deficient in Magnesium, CoQ10, and Vitamin B2.

Magnesium can help to relax body tension via the muscular system, and having low magnesium not eating enough vegetables) can trigger more intense cramping and hormonal headaches in women.

CoQ10 (or the reduced and more effective version Ubiquinol) helps to regenerate your mitochondria in your cells. Many pharmaceuticals are known to use up this CoQ10 supply, thus creating headaches.

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) can be another cause, but it’s generally recommended to take a B Vitamin Complex (not just B2) in order to keep balance in the body. Remember, Vitamin B will cause your urine to temporarily turn yellow, which may interfere with your ability to see if you’re severely dehydrated or not. Make sure to track your water and continue to drink a normal, healthy amount while supplementing.

Many Triggers, Many Causes

woman researching types of headaches tension headache

Physical, emotional, and chemical triggers can affect and create any of those 129 types of headaches. Common triggers include worry, fatigue (improper sleep), smoke and food additives, dehydration, and very commonly, increased Sympathetic Nervous System activity.

Your SNS, or fight and flight mechanism of your body, can often be stuck with the ‘foot on the gas’. This overexertion and constant stimulation of the body can fatigue many systems and result in headaches.

Although there are many triggers, these types of headaches often have a history of repetitive micro-trauma such as sustained poor posture, motor-vehicle accidents, whiplash, slip and falls, sports injury, and overall de-conditioning. These structural damages to the Spine and Nervous System can build up over time, like a rusted door that never gets lubricated.

Deeper Causes of Headaches

deeper cause of headache head pain

For most of the 129 types of headaches, Nervous System Dysfunction is recognized as the underlying cause. Strains on your body that disrupt this system range from:

  • Poor sleep (too little and too much)

  • Inconsistent sleep time

  • Dehydration

  • Over-exertion with sports and activities

  • Mental strain and emotional distress

  • Poor posture with sitting, phones, and computers

All of these can be improved by you, and you should always start with these basics. If you still don’t see improvements in your headaches, there may be more dysfunction built up in your spine that needs attention. This is where a Chiropractor can help an incredible amount.

Upper Cervical Care for Headaches

cervical nerves anatomy from the back
Cervical (neck) nerves exiting the spine

The upper neck, more specifically the top two vertebrae known as C1 and C2, are a common cause for headaches. The nerves that exit out from your spine can often be irritated and inflamed from small misalignments, or Subluxations.

The improper communication from those exiting nerves to your brain can cause neural dysfunction (nerve irritation) to build up, with headaches and migraines becoming the symptoms.

A Chiropractic Adjustment, which restores proper biomechanics and relieves nerve irritation, can allow the symptoms to go away, and with proper treatment and advice, prevent future episodes from occurring.


Unfortunately, most people have been trained to temporarily mask their pain with 'over the counter' medication such as Tylenol, aspirin, or panadol. Taking painkillers frequently can make future headaches even worse, causing “rebound headaches” that then can’t be resolved with medication! As a Chiropractor, headaches and migraines are our so called “bread and butter”. We routinely see phenomenal changes in reducing frequency and intensity, and in many cases resolution of headaches and migraines because we work and correct issues with the Nervous System. By analysing NeuroStructural shifts within your spine, most notably your neck (where most headaches are stimulated neurologically), we can address the root cause of the problem. We also advise patients on supplementation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, postural exercises, and more. By taking a holistic approach, we can tackle and improve every trigger and aspect of headaches. If you or someone you know has been suffering from headaches for too long, let us know how we can help. Feel free to message us for more information about your case.


For more information, or a free consult to see if your case is right for us, email us at



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