We’ve all had a splitting headache at one time or another, whether it was due to the drinks you had the night before, stress or the tree blooming outside your bedroom window.
Headaches are common—it’s estimated that nearly 75% of people worldwide have at least one headache each year. “Headaches are also one of the most common reasons patients see a neurologist for care,” said Holly Yancy, DO, a headache medicine specialist with Banner Brain & Spine.
Although they are common, you may wonder why they don’t always occur in the same place. Why is it that you sometimes get them on one side, between your eyes or around your whole head? Could the location of your headache tell you the type of headache you’re experiencing?
Location alone isn’t a clear-cut way to diagnose but paying attention to the location of your pain could help tip you off to its cause and help you get the right treatment.
“There are many aspects to the cause of headaches, and location is certainly one of them,” Dr. Yancy said. “However, it’s a combination of signs and symptoms that allow for a more accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.”
If you’re experiencing a headache, here’s a guide to what the location of your pain might mean and what to do with the information.
Types of headaches by location
One side of your head
Common reason: Migraine
Migraines are the second leading cause of disability and affect about 1.04 billion people worldwide.
Migraines are usually one-sided, although many people can experience them on both sides, and can worsen with movement and activity. “Other symptoms may include pounding or throbbing pain, sensitivity to light and sound, sometimes smells, nausea and vomiting,” Dr. Yancy said. “Many patients also have periods before and after a migraine where they experience symptoms.”
[Here are tips for coping with an unbearable migraine.]
A band around your head or entire head
Common reason: Tension-type headache
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache—and the most common kind of headache during pregnancy. They can range from mild to moderate and can happen either infrequently or, for some people, several times a week.
You may experience pressure or tightness, often like a band is squeezing around your head, and it may extend to your neck and shoulders. Unlike migraines, tension headaches don’t tend to cause nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light.
One side of the head and in and around your eye
Common reason: Cluster headache
Cluster headaches are relatively uncommon but are one of the most severe types of headaches. They get their name because they tend to come in clusters, with one to eight headaches a day, and often happen every year or two during the same time of year.
You may experience pain in and around your eye that may also radiate down your neck, cheek, nose, temple or shoulder—usually just on one side. You may also experience tearing and redness in your eye, your nose may run or be blocked on the affected side as well.
Front of your head and face
Common reason: Sinus headache
A sinus headache, called sinusitis, occurs when the sinus passages behind your eyes, nose, cheeks and forehead are congested. It is rare and can often be confused with a tension headache or a migraine. It’s commonly thought that weather changes often cause sinus headaches, but in reality, weather changes are a common trigger for migraines.
Neck and back of the head
Common reason: Cervicogenic headache or occipital neuralgia
If you experience headaches that radiate from the neck to the back of your head, you may have a cervicogenic headache. A cervicogenic headache is a secondary headache, which means that it is caused by another illness or physical issue. You may find your headaches worsens with some neck movements or when pressure is applied to certain spots on your neck.
If you experience pain from the base of your skull that radiated upward, it could be due to a rare type of chronic headache called occipital neuralgia. Occipital neuralgia can be triggered quickly, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.
How to diagnose and treat your headaches
There are many aspects to a headache and location is only a piece of the puzzle. To get the right treatment for your headache, you need the right diagnosis. And that starts with an appointment with your health care provider.
“It’s always good to speak with your doctor if your headache starts to interfere with your everyday life, if the headaches you’ve had are suddenly different or if they seem to be progressing in severity or frequency,” Dr. Yancy said.
Your health care provider will want to know the quality of the pain, how often your headaches occur, how long they last, the severity, the patterns to time of onset and whether the pain worsens with changes in body position. “It’s also helpful to determine if the headaches are associated with other symptoms, such as sensitivity to lights and sounds, visual changes, dizziness, weakness and numbness,” Dr. Yancy advised.
When you should seek immediate medical care
Most headaches aren’t dangerous, but some can be. Dr. Yancy shared some red flag warning signs that should trigger a trip to the doctor:
- If your headache escalates to maximum severity over seconds to a few minutes.
- If your headache is associated with other symptoms, such as one-sided weakness or sensory loss, vision loss, trouble speaking or a loss of vision.
- If your headache is accompanied by fever, nausea or vomiting that’s not related to an illness or medical condition.
- If you have a headache following a head injury.
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, speak with your health care provider or schedule an appointment with one of our Banner Health specialists to develop a treatment plan. You can find a Banner Health specialist by visiting bannerhealth.com.