Determine Your Headache Type by Its Location

A headache is the most common form of pain. Although there are over 150 types of headaches, only a few types are common. The location of your headache can help you know the type.

types of headache and location meaning

When the exact headache location cannot be identified, it is called a generalized headache.

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Nine out of ten people will have a headache at some time. The location of your headache may be an important clue to the type of headache, along with other clues like when the headache occurs, how long it lasts, how severe it is, and what other symptoms you have with the headache. [1]

Primary headaches occur on their own without being caused by a medical condition like a fever or head injury. Tension headache, migraine, and cluster headache are the most familiar types of primary headaches. Headaches caused by another condition are secondary headaches, some of these types are also common. [1,2]

1. Tension Headache

This primary headache is the most common type of headache. The location is usually on both sides of your head. This headache causes a dull and constant pain. It may feel like a band tightening around your head, causing pressure in your face, head, and neck. Most tension headaches occur between 10 and 15 days per month and last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. [1]

Tension headaches were once called muscle contraction headaches because they can be caused by stressful contraction of muscles in  your head or neck. Emotional stress, stressful postures, anxiety, and depression may all be triggers for this headache. [1]

Identifying your stress triggers and avoiding them may prevent stress headaches. Over-the-counter pain relievers are the most common treatment. [1-3]

2. Migraine Headache

Migraine headaches affect about 12 percent of Americans. Women are affected about three times more frequently than men. [1] The location of this headache is usually on one side of your head. The pain is moderate to severe and throbs or pulsates. Migraine headaches often occur along with nausea and are made worse by movement, light, noise, or odors.  [1-3]

A migraine attack can last from 4 to 72 hours. [2] Some people have migraine warning symptoms called an aura. These may include visual disturbances, numbness, weakness, or tingling. An aura may occur 30 to 60 minutes before the headache. [1-3]

Migraine headaches often run in families. The cause of migraines is not completely understood. Brain chemicals that activate pain producing nerves inside blood vessels of the brain may be part of the cause.  Attacks may be triggered by foods, lack of sleep, stress, hunger, smoking, and changes in the weather. In women, hormone changes of puberty and menstrual cycles may be triggers. [1-3] Migraine attacks can range from once a year to once a week. [2]

There are many types of migraine medications. They fall into two types. Medications that you take every day to prevent migraine attacks are called preventive medicines. You can also help prevent attacks by keeping a headache diary to identify and avoid your migraine triggers. Medications that you take to relieve the pain of a migraine are called abortive medications. These are taken at the first sign of an attack. [1]

3. Cluster Headache

cluster headache

A cluster headache often hits behind or around an eye.

Cluster headache is much less common than tension or migraine. The location of this headache is around one eye. The pain is very severe. Your eye may become swollen, red, and teary. Your eyelid may droop. You may also have a stuffy or runny nose. Cluster headaches are about six time more common in men. They are named cluster headaches because the headaches tend to start suddenly and occur a few times every day for a few weeks and then go away. The clusters may come back a few times each year. [1-3]

The exact cause of cluster headaches is not known. They usually occur between ages 20 and 50. Triggers can include smoking and drinking alcohol. There are several treatment options including electrical nerve stimulation, oxygen therapy, injections, and oral medications for both pain relief and prevention. [1]

Other Headaches With Specific Locations

For many primary and secondary headaches, the location of the headache is less important. However, location can be a key to diagnosis for these headache types:

4. Cervicogenic Headache

This headache causes pain on one side of your head or face along with a stiff neck. You may also have pain in your arm or shoulder. This type may be caused by a neck injury or arthritis of your upper spine.

5. Giant Cell Arteritis

This type of headache is caused by swelling and irritation of an artery that runs in front of your ear near your temple. It is also called temporal arteritis. You may have a jabbing or burning pain in your temple. It can be painful to touch the temple area. This pain is caused by inflammation of the temporal artery.

6. Sinus Headache

This secondary headache is caused by a sinus infection. The location of the pain is over a blocked or infected sinus. Pain may be between or above your eyes or over your teeth. This pain is usually on one side, but can be on both sides. You may also have nasal congestion, nasal discharge, or fever. Many people who think they have sinus headaches actually have migraine, which is much more common than sinus headache.

7. Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

Your TMJ is the joint that connects your lower jaw to your face. If this joint is swollen or injured it can cause pain inside or just in front of your ear. You may feel it on one or both sides of your face. Your jaw may also click or lock and pain may get worse with chewing. Arthritis, jaw clenching from stress, teeth grinding at night, and jaw injuries are some causes of TMJ. [3]

How to Diagnose a Headache

To get the right headache treatment and the meaning of your headache’s location, you need the right diagnosis. Let your doctor know if you have headaches that are getting worse or if you have headaches three or more time per week. If you are over age 50 and you start having headaches for the first time, let your doctor know. [1]

You can help your doctor diagnose your headache by keeping a headache diary. Keep track of your symptoms, the location of your headache, when they start and end, possible triggers, and things that help or make the pain worse. [1]

Most headaches are not dangerous, but some can be. These are some red flag headaches that need a doctor visit right away:

  • A sudden and severe headache with a stiff neck
  • Severe headache with fever, nausea, or vomiting
  • The worst headache ever, with confusion, weakness, double vision, loss of consciousness, seizure, double vision, weakness, or numbness
  • Headache after a head injury. [1]


  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Headache: Hope Through Research
  2. World Health Organization, Headache disorders
  3. National Headache Foundation, The Complete Headache Chart

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Chris Iliades, MD

Dr. Chris Iliades is board-certified in Ear, Nose and Throat and Head and Neck Surgery from the American Board of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. He holds a medical … Read More

View all posts by Chris Iliades, MD

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