How do headaches occur?

Ah, headaches. The bane of our existence. Or maybe just the bane of mine, considering I seem to get them every time my boss assigns me a new project that is due in 48 hours and requires about five weeks worth of work – but no biggie.

So, how do these pesky little things occur (aside from when my boss makes me want to pull out all my hair)? Let’s dive into the intricate world of brain pain together!

Understanding Pain

Before we go any further, let’s talk a bit about pain itself. You see, pain isn’t just some ethereal concept floating around in space messing with our heads (no pun intended – OK fine it was intended). It actually has a physiological basis.

You have nerve endings throughout your body called nociceptors (not kryptonite, though they might as well be given their crippling effect) which are activated by stimuli like heat or pressure or sharp objects (ouch). When these bad boys fire off signals to your brain that say “Hey buddy! We’re detecting something painful over here!”, your brain responds by telling you “OK buckle up because we’re going on a rollercoaster ride called ‘agony’.”

Basically what I’m trying to say is that pain serves an important function in keeping us safe and helping us avoid injury – even if it does make us feel like slugs squished underfoot at times.

A Unique Type of Pain

Now headaches (see what I did there?) are a bit different from other types of pain because they originate specifically within the head. There are several different types of headaches (you could say it’s kind of like Pokémon: gotta catch ’em all) which can be differentiated based on their symptoms and underlying causes.

The most common headaches include:

  • Tension headache
  • Migraine headache
  • Cluster headache
  • Sinus headache

We’ll go into a bit more detail on each of these types later, but for now let’s just focus on what they all have in common: pain that originates within the head.

The Triggers behind Headaches

So what causes this head-based pain to start creeping up (or slamming down like some kind of twisted piñata filled with skull-shattering agony)? There are several factors that can contribute to headaches, including:


Ah yes, good ol’ stress. That thing we all love and cherish about as much as getting papercuts underneath our fingernails while also having someone nail a trumpet note directly in our ear canal. When we’re stressed out, it triggers muscle tension (a.k.a. “taking your shoulders and knotting them so tightly you could use them as an anchor for ships”) which can lead to tension headaches.


Ladies, I’m sure you know exactly where I’m going with this one (so fun right ladies?!?). Fluctuations in estrogen levels during menstruation or pregnancy can trigger migraines for some women. Fun fact: this is why men very rarely experience menstrual migraines (hooray for male privilege!)

Dietary factors

Certain foods and drinks (looking at you coffee, my old friend/enemy) can also be culprits when it comes to triggering headaches – especially if they contain vasoactive substances (i.e. stuff that constricts blood vessels). Some of these delicious offenders include red wine (what did wine ever do to deserve such treatment???), chocolate (oh COME ON PEOPLE! We were already sacrificing enough by ditching the caffeine), aged cheese (buh bye Blue Stilton, see you never unless I want a migraine!), and cured meats aka Salami Parade Floats brimming with potential misery.


Lastly, environmental factors such as bright lights (why do I always find myself staring directly into the sun like it’s a special magic eye puzzle for masochists?) and loud noises can also trigger headaches in some people.

The Different Types of Headaches

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of each type of headache shall we? WARNING: slight TMI ahead.

Tension Headache

This type of headache is characterized by a moderate amount of pain that feels like a tight band around your head. It’s usually caused by muscle tension or stress (I mean who even among us HASN’T felt that uncomfortable band when deadlines are looming over their heads??).

Other potential symptoms include things like decreased appetite, sensitivity to light or noise, and feeling tired/fatigued (aka how I look every morning before 3 cups of coffee).

Treatment options tend to focus on relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation (or if you’re me just binge watching Netflix until you forget about all your worries). Sometimes things like massage therapy, hot/cold compresses temps, and OTC medications (e.g., ibuprofen) can help relieve symptoms as well.

Migraine Headache

Migraines are not only very common but they’re also often debilitating enough to require actual medical treatment (which is convenient considering how affordable US healthcare is amirite??? OH WAIT ugh never mind moving on…)

These pesky headaches are typically characterized by intense pulsing/painful sensation in one area of the head accompanied by other less-than-thrilling side effects such as nausea/vomiting – because why stop at JUST having an ice pick jammed into your temple y’know? Visual disturbances including “aura” might occur beforehand which my doctor assured me during my last appointment were NOT associated with suddenly becoming able to personally relate backstories from X-men characters.

Many people find that avoiding triggers (oh so easy right??) such as certain foods or stressors can help prevent migraines. Treatments may include prescription medications and/or medical procedures aimed at reducing frequency/severity of episodes.

Cluster Headache

This type of headache is aptly named – because they occur in clusters over a period of time (often several weeks). Symptoms usually involve intense pain around one eye area (and maybe some tearing also), which sounds terrible but probably qualifies as a “bingo” space on the torture chamber checkbox card.

The exact causes are unknown(probably teenage angst combined with 30 minutes without social media access…it’s just my hunch though!) but researchers believe it might have something to do with changes in blood flow/vessel dilation. Various treatment options including medication, oxygen therapy, and nerve blocks are available depending upon severity of symptoms (or if you enjoy playing roulette with your health then there’s always herbal remedies — i.e., snake oil salesman variety)

Sinus Headache

This type of headache occurs when sinuses become inflamed due to allergies or infection like Santa Claus brought along plague for Christmas present. But unlike getting presents under the tree, sinus headaches cause things like pressure/buildup in head/face areas (yay!). People often experience symptoms similar to migraine headaches accompanied by elevated fever/watery eyes/nasal congestion (nothing says ‘happy holidays’ quite like not being able to breathe when taking your Grandma out on errands during Boxing day sale amirite?)

Treatment tends involves getting proper rest/hydration while using OTC medications such decongestants and nasal sprays provide temporary relief until underlying condition clears somewhat up.

The Takeaway

In conclusion, whether you’re dealing with tension headaches from too much work anxiety or trying your best avoid dining choices ahem miraculously capable (no judgment here!), one thing is certain: headaches are a common but miserable experience. But like all bad things in life, they eventually go away and we learn to appreciate our pain-free moments that much more – or at least until the next project deadline/holiday season/sniffle session forces us to dive for the nearest ice pack bottle. So breathe deep, take care of yourself (including mentally! Self-care isn’t just about bubble baths these days) and know that you’re not alone when it comes to contending with head-based agony.