Nothing puts a dent in your day like a headache. Whether it’s a dull throb, or a shooting pain in your head, a headache can make it a challenge just to complete normal, everyday tasks.
And severe headaches, like migraines, may make it downright impossible to go about your daily routine.
But, have you ever stopped to ask yourself whether it’s just a headache, or something more? It’s a question worth posing. Many headaches are minor (and manageable), but others may be signs of something more serious that you may want to discuss with your doctor.
So, if you experience frequent or severe headaches, and you’re wondering about the possible root cause of your pain, read on.
When it comes to determining the cause of head pain, start here. Tension headaches are said to be the most prevalent kind of headache, so if you deal with head pain, there’s a good chance a tension headache is to blame.1
A tension headache feels like a dull, constricting pressure, almost like wearing a tight band around your head. The pain usually occurs on both sides of your head, and it does not get worse with physical activity (a distinguishing factor from migraines, which do get worse with physical activity). Tension headaches may be brought on by stress, lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, or menstruation.2
Perhaps the most notorious type of a headache, a migraine can feel like a pressured throbbing, or stabbing pain in head.3 The pain, which usually occurs on one side of your head, can last between a few hours to several days – and it tends to worsen with physical activity.4
Migraine pain is often accompanied by nausea, dizziness, light and sound sensitivity, and a lack of appetite.5
The pain from migraine headaches may also be precipitated by phenomena known as “prodrome” and “aura.” Prodrome symptoms indicate a migraine may be coming on, and they can include feelings of fatigue, euphoria, irritability, food cravings, and sensory sensitivity. Aura symptoms also precede migraines, and are often visual in nature. An aura may include seeing flashes of lights, zig-zag patterns, or a partial loss of vision.6
Studies have demonstrated that dehydration can be a trigger for both migraines and tension headaches.7,8
If you’re dehydrated, you may also feel tired, lightheaded, moody, and yes – thirsty.9
Shooting pain around your eyes, or on one side of your head, may be caused by cluster headaches. These types of headaches come on suddenly, and they are severe in nature, lasting about 15 minutes to 3 hours. They’re called “cluster headaches” because they tend to occur in clusters of time. For example, you may get a cluster headache at the same time each day for a “cluster” of time – perhaps weeks to months. Cluster headaches are intensely painful, and they often affect men more than women.10
Ice Pick Headaches
Stabbing pain in head is often characteristic of ice pick headaches. They’re usually short in duration and the stabbing pain in head occurs in a localized region. These stabbing sensations are often brief, lasting just a few seconds.11
Ice pick headaches are most often experienced by women. And yes, they do have some accompanying symptoms – you might experience nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and dizziness.12
An exertional headache is brought on by coughing, prolonged exercise, or sexual activity. This activity-related headache, which tends to occur on both sides of the head, is characterized by a sharp, pulsating pain.13
Exertional headaches don’t last very long, and they occur in the immediate aftermath of physical activity. It’s thought that this type of headache occurs because of sudden increased pressure in the brain, or as a result of an abnormality in the arteries.14,15
People experiencing sinus headaches have pressure and pain around the sinuses and eyes.16
But it’s important to understand that sinus headaches aren’t necessarily caused by irritation of the sinuses. In fact, some studies have shown that sinus headaches may actually be version of a migraine that presents with pain around the sinuses as well as nasal congestion.17
Sinus headaches may also be caused by year-round allergies, which also have the potential to cause congestion and pain around the sinuses and eyes.18
Shooting pain in head can be indicative of trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that affects the trigeminal nerve – the nerve responsible for relaying sensory feeling from your face to your brain. The nerve may become irritated due to contact with an artery, a tumor on the nerve, or as a result of conditions like multiple sclerosis.19 Trigeminal neuralgia pain is excruciating.
It may feel like a sharp electric shock to one part of your face, such as the cheek, jaw, lips, gums, teeth, forehead, or around your eyes.
Pain can be triggered by simple activities, like touching your face or brushing your teeth. The pain may last from several seconds to several minutes.
Some people experience trigeminal neuralgia in episodes that come and go for several weeks or months, with no symptoms in between. Other people may experience a dull burning or aching for weeks that eventually results in attacks of full-blown trigeminal neuralgia pain.
Shooting pain in head can also be caused by something called occipital neuralgia. This condition involves the irritation or injury of the the nerves that transmit feeling from the back and top of your head to your brain. This irritation may be caused by pinched nerves or tight muscles in your neck or the back of your head.21
This stabbing pain usually begins at the back of the neck, and then spreads to the top of the head. Occipital neuralgia may also involve vision impairment, ear-ringing, nausea, dizziness, and even nasal congestion.22
Giant Cell Arteritis
This condition occurs when the arteries in your head — specifically, the narrow arteries near your temples — become hot, swollen, and irritated, which can lead to inadequate blood flow. Giant cell arteritis is most likely to occur in older individuals. The symptoms include a headache centered around the temples, scalp tenderness, and jaw pain when chewing. You may also notice ear pain, neck pain, and occasionally fever, weight loss, fatigue, and muscle pain.23
It’s important to see a doctor immediately if you suspect you may have giant cell arteritis, as significant complications can occur.
Talking With Your Doctor
Head pain is not only distracting, it can also be an indicator that there are underlying issues you may need to address. So if you’re concerned about any shooting pain in head, make an appointment with your medical practitioner, who can help you uncover the cause of your pain and help you plan a course of treatment.