Is It A Migraine, Tension Headache, or ‘Just a Headache?
Chiropractic Anaheim CA Woman Migraine on Bed

Is It A Migraine, Tension Headache, or ‘Just a Headache?

Headache pain: dull to throbbing, splitting to burning. There’s no denying it, a headache is enough to ruin your day or for some, sideline you for days. Just what causes headaches and why do some seem to be more prone to pain than others?   

In this article, we discuss the four most common types of headaches: migraines, cluster, tension, and cervicogenic, common triggers, and your best treatment options. 


Migraine pain feels like a strong, often one-sided throbbing pain radiating from deep inside your head. The pain can last several hours to many days. Migraines may also make you sensitive to sound and light or cause nausea and vomiting. One in five people also experience “auras,” or disturbances in their vision just before the onset of a migraine. Typical auras include flashing or sparkling lights or stars, zigzag lines, or even blind spots.

Anyone can get a migraine — adults, children, men, and women although women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men. Migraines often run in families and are also associated with certain nervous system conditions as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sleep disruption, dehydration, hunger, specific foods, hormones, and exposure to chemicals can all trigger a migraine.

Treating Migraines

Typical over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen often don’t provide relief to migraine pain, leading doctors to prescribe triptans or drugs that decrease inflammation and change the flow of blood within your brain. Medications that decrease the number of migraine occurrences may also be prescribed, although they do not address the source cause of your headaches. 

Chiropractic treatment, in contrast, gets to the root of what’s causing your migraine. Focusing on the body’s alignment, particularly the spine, eases pain and improves your body’s mobility. 

Though individual treatment plans will vary, chiropractic care focuses on determining the specific characteristics of your migraines. Many patients respond well to adjustment– moving, stretching, and gently placing pressure on the spine, allowing the body to heal naturally.

Cluster Headaches

If you’re experiencing severe burning, piercing pain behind one eye or on one side of your face along with swelling, redness, and sweating, you’re likely experiencing a cluster headache. Other symptoms include nasal congestion and tearing eyes on the same side as the headache.

“Cluster” headaches get their trademark name from typically striking in a series, (or cluster) with each headache lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. During a cluster, most people report one to four headaches each day, often for months at a time. In the months between clusters, most people are completely free of headache symptoms. 

Interestingly, cluster headaches are three times more common in men than in women and are also more common in the Spring and Fall.  Cluster headaches also tend to strike patients at the same time each year. 

Treatment for Cluster Headaches

Doctors aren’t sure what causes cluster headaches and often prescribe treatments such as oxygen therapy, Imitrex, local anesthetics, or calcium channel blockers that either shorten the cluster attack or send headaches into temporary remission. 

When you’re experiencing cluster headaches, your body is communicating that it isn’t functioning optimally. Chiropractic treatment focuses on preventative care by making adjustments to the upper cervical joints (upper neck). When joint motion is restored, the nervous system can relax and function optimally, bringing powerful relief from cluster headaches.

Tension Headaches

Ever get a dull, achy sensation all over your head? This is typical of a tension headache as opposed to the distinct throbbing of migraines. Tension headaches may also cause your neck, forehead, scalp, or shoulder muscles to feel tender.

The most common cause of tension headaches is subluxations in the upper back and neck usually in conjunction with active trigger points. Sometimes the top cervical vertebrae will lose normal motion, causing painful muscle spasms. People who sit at a desk all day, spend large amounts of time on their smartphone, (resulting in the dreaded “tech neck”), or who’ve suffered whiplash are more susceptible to tension headaches.

Treating Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are often brought on by stress. Over-the-counter pain relievers often provide pain relief but for more severe headaches, prescription drugs like indomethacin, meloxicam, and ketorolac may also be prescribed.

While drugs may provide pain relief, they do not address the origin of what’s causing your headaches. A common root cause is a misaligned vertebrae pressing on the nerves above and below the spine, disrupting the communication link between the brain and the affected body part. Gentle chiropractic adjustments greatly reduce or even eliminate your tension headache pain.

Cervicogenic Headaches

Cervicogenic headaches often feel similar to migraines; light and noise sensitivity, blurred vision, and an upset stomach are common symptoms. A migraine headache, however, is rooted in the brain, while a cervicogenic headache is rooted in the cervical spine/neck or base of the skull.

Cervicogenic headaches include a distinct throbbing head pain along with:

  • Pain on one side of your head or face, or around the eyes
  • Stiff neck, or pain that accompanies neck movement
  • Pain while coughing or sneezing

Common causes include degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, a prolapsed disc in the neck, or whiplash. Cervicogenic headaches may also occur due to poor posture while sitting or standing. And if your job requires you to sit at a desk all day, you may unknowingly put pressure on the neck and base of the skull, triggering a cervicogenic headache. Even falling asleep in an awkward position can cause a cervicogenic headache. 

Treating Cervicogenic Headaches

Since inflammation and other problems with the nerves can cause cervicogenic headaches, your doctor may recommend oral over-the-counter medications or a muscle relaxant.

Chiropractic care will often involve applying pressure to different parts of your neck and base of your head to determine whether a particular spot is triggering a headache. Additionally, tests to determine if changes in neck positioning provoke a headache may also be part of diagnostic treatment.

Ongoing adjustments as part of your treatment plan will help with pain as will simply avoiding activities that worsen pain, applying ice or heat for 10 to 15 minutes, using a neck brace when you’ve got a sore neck, and practicing good posture.

There are many physical and environmental factors to consider when determining which type of headache you have, and you often won’t be completely sure until you’ve consulted with a doctor. A visit to our office will help determine the root cause of your pain so a customized treatment plan can be mapped out for your immediate and ongoing relief. Schedule an appointment online or call us at (714) 777-3200.