The differences between migraine, cluster, sinus and tension headaches

It's important to identify what kind of headache you have in order to find an effective treatment.
By Irina Lytchak
tension headaches Photo, Aleksandra Kovac/Stocksy

Many of us have experienced a tension headache that throbs on both sides of the head. Or how about the sinus headache that usually sets in with a little friend called “fever”? With so many different types of headaches, identifying what is making your head hurt is crucial.

“Certain treatments are very specific to migraines, and they can be harmful if used in the wrong context,” says Dr. Caroline G. Newman, family physician at St. Clair Medical Associates in Toronto. Knowing what type of headache you’re experiencing will help you and your physician select the best treatment options.

Here’s a look at the four most common types of headaches, to help you determine which one is at the root of your pain.

Tension Headaches This is the most common type of headache, affecting roughly 30 percent of Canadians. It presents itself with feelings of discomfort in the head, scalp, jaw or neck. The pain is dull, constant and usually experienced on both sides of the head. The cause is unknown, but stress is the most commonly reported trigger.

Treatment options for tension headaches include hot or cold compresses, relaxation techniques, therapeutic massages and over-the-counter medications. If relying on pain medication, “patients need to be responsible in terms of the doses they take,” says Brent Lucas, executive director of Help for Headaches, a London, Ont.-based non-profit.

Migraine Headaches Migraine sufferers usually experience sharp and throbbing pain on one side of the head, and migraines are often associated with nausea, vomiting and/or sensitivity to light and sound. According to a 2011 study published by Statistics Canada, an estimated 2.7 million Canadians reported that they had been diagnosed with a migraine, with those between the ages of 30 and 49 experiencing the most episodes.


The most common prescription medications for migraines are triptans; they are not painkillers but instead work to stop the migraine in its tracks, says Newman. Migraines can also be effectively treated by adopting healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating regularly, exercising, staying hydrated, getting sufficient sleep and avoiding known triggers.

Sinus Headache These headaches often appear when your sinus membranes become inflamed as a result of an infection such as sinusitis, or a cold or flu virus. It’s usually accompanied by a fever; if it’s caused by sinusitis, it can be treated with antibiotics and decongestants.

Preventing a sinus headache goes back to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, building a strong immune system, washing your hands regularly and using a humidifier during cold and flu season.

Cluster Headaches One of the least common and most severe types of headache is the cluster headache. The cause of such headaches remains unknown. A cluster headache involves an intense pain behind and around the eyes that’s one-sided, throbbing and excruciating. Cluster periods last anywhere from several weeks to three months; during that time headaches can reoccur several times per day.

Your treatment should aim to decrease the severity of the pain, shorten the headache period and prevent attacks. Your doctor may provide you with immediate treatments such as inhaling oxygen and local anesthetics. You may also want to consider preventive therapy, which includes calcium channel blockers and melatonin.



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