By David Gutierrez

When you have a headache, do you immediately reach for a bottle of painkillers? Next time, take a moment first to figure out exactly what type of headache you actually have. That’s because the most common types of headaches actually have very different causes, and will respond best to very different treatments.

Few doctors take the time to distinguish between common headache types, which is just one reason that so many people find themselves taking unnecessary and potentially dangerous pharmaceutical painkillers.

In the words of drug safety communication specialist Bruce Lambert of Northwestern University, “There are no completely safe pain relievers, period.”

“For people who are in the habit of taking these drugs for headaches or mild pain, they might want to reconsider.”

Basic headaches

By far the most common causes of headaches are from simple lack of self-care, such as fatigue or dehydration. For these headaches, the most effective natural remedy is simply to eat a banana and drink a lot of water. That will often provide enough immediate relief to address other underlying problems, like lack of sleep. But if your headache does not respond to water, food or rest, you may have one of the following common headache types instead.

A sinus headache occurs when sinus inflammation, often caused by an infection, sends severe pain radiating out into the cheeks, forehead and eyes. It is often accompanied by a fever. To treat a sinus headache naturally, drink lots of fluids – preferably warm ones, which will help reduce the sinus inflammation and encourage the tissues to open up. To fight the infection, eat foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges. You can combine these tactics by drinking a hot, antioxidant-rich green tea with lemon, or eating a nutrient-rich soup. Fresh ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory and painkiller.

Hot and cold compresses applied to the sinuses can also provide some relief.

The third common headache type is a tension headache, characterised by consistent pressure or pain, especially in the temples, the neck and the back of the head. Tension headaches may also send pain radiating out from the eye, and be accompanied by nausea and even vomiting. They are believed to be provoked by stress, which causes the scalp and neck muscles to contract.

To soothe these muscles, massage them with peppermint oil, particularly along the hairline. As with a sinus headache, drinking ginger tea can reduce inflammation and provide natural pain relief.

Neurologically triggered headaches

Some headaches may indicate potential neurological problems.

A cluster headache is characterised by the sudden onset of severe pain on only one side of the head, typically over one eye. These headaches tend to recur, either in a cyclical fashion or with several attacks followed by a lull. Cluster headaches are often accompanied by nasal congestion, a runny nose or watery eyes. Women tend to experience them more often than men.

The cause of cluster headaches is unknown, but researchers believe their proximate cause is the activation of a specific nerve pathway. Fortunately, there is a simple treatment: capsaicin cream – which contains the chemical that makes chili peppers hot – which can be applied to the nostrils. This blocks the nerves from transmitting pain signals.

Perhaps the most infamous type of headache is the migraine, which affects 38 million people in the United States alone, most of them between the ages of 25 and 55. These headaches are characterised by intense, throbbing pain, typically on one side of the head, but, in one-third of cases, on both sides. Migraine headaches typically co-occur with other neurological symptoms, including dizziness, visual disturbance, nausea and vomiting, numbness or tingling in the face, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, smell or touch. Migraine symptoms typically begin at the top of the head and radiate downward.

Evidence suggests that supplementation with vitamin B12, magnesium and omega-3s can reduce the occurrence and severity of migraines. Regular exercise can also help prevent attacks.