Sharp Pain in Head: Causes and When to See a Doctor Immediately

Sharp Pain in Head
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A sharp pain in the head is a severe type of headache that feels like a stabbing ache in your head. Although most causes of the sharp shooting pain in the head are nothing to worry about, the severe pain can affect your daily activities and cause a lot of discomfort. Common reasons for a sharp pain in your head are migraines, ice pick headaches, irritation to nerves in your head, drinking too much alcohol, and even eating something cold can cause a shooting pain in your head.

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However, on rare occasions, the sharp pain in the head may be a sign of a more serious medical condition. This is especially true if it is accompanied by other symptoms. For example, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), a brain tumor, or stroke can all cause a severe headache with sharp head pains and are usually accompanied by other symptoms. At the end of the article, you will learn when you should see a doctor if you frequently have sharp headaches.

Before looking at the various reasons of a sharp pain in the head, let’s look to see what happens in the brain that causes bad, severe headaches.

Why Do You Get Sharp Pains in the Head?

The brain tissue itself can’t experience pain because it doesn’t contain any nerves. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a series of nerves in your head react to sensations from your scalp, blood vessels around your skull, the brain’s lining, and the face (mouth, neck, ears, eyes, and throat).1

These nerves can react to various triggers like stress, medicines, or certain foods and cause a sharp painful sensation in your head. Because these nerves are connected with other organs of your body, it explains why severe headaches are sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and trouble concentrating.

Causes of Sharp Pains in the Head

Depending on the cause of your severe headache, you can feel stabbing shooting pains anywhere in your head. However, some conditions cause pain at the back of your head or on just the left side or right side of your head. Usually, knowing what triggers headaches and what the accompanying symptoms are can help you diagnose the cause of pain.

Migraine

Migraines can cause a severe throbbing pulsating pain on just one side of the head. Along with the severe pain, you may also have nausea, vomiting, tingling in the head and sensitivity to light or sound. The sharp pain in the head can get worse by physical activity, moving, or sneezing.

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According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the severe headache is caused by abnormal brain activity which affects the nerves and blood vessels in the lining of your brain.1

Doctors from the National Health Service in the United Kingdom say that there are 2 types of migraine that cause severe headaches:2

  • A migraine with aura. The severe headache is preceded by flashing lights, blind spots, tingling in your hand or face, or dizziness.
  • A migraine without aura. The migraine isn’t preceded by any vision changes or other neurological symptoms. The sudden, sharp pain on one side of the head starts suddenly without any warning.

Some migraine attacks can be caused by a specific trigger or happen at regular times. For example, some women have regular migraines just before their period. Sometimes, stress, tiredness or certain foods can trigger a migraine. A hormonal imbalance can be the reason for suffering from migraines before your period.

If you suffer from frequent sharp pains in your head, it could be due to a nutritional deficiency that has been linked to frequent migraines.

There are many natural ways to prevent and ease the throbbing pain of a migraine. Some essential oils might effective at providing migraine relief. You could try putting some essential oils like peppermint, lavender, or chamomile in a diffuser to inhale the vapor and get rid of your agonizing headache fast.

One of my top 10 tips to relieve migraines naturally is to drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated. A study published in the European Journal f Neurology found that increasing water intake can help to prevent headaches. They also found that drinking more water can help to reduce the length and intensity of migraines.3

Ice pick headaches

If you have sharp stabbing pains in your head that last a few seconds, you may suffer from ice pick headaches. These shooting headaches usually only affect one side of the head and give you severe jolts behind one of your eyes.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD says that ice pick headaches are not caused by a serious medical condition. Certain conditions like stress, bright lights or sudden movements can trigger the stabbing pains. He recommends keeping a headache diary to help identify triggers so that you can prevent further headache attacks.4

If you experience brief sharp shooting head pains, it is important to get them checked out by a doctor first so that they can rule out any serious medical condition.

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Eating something cold

Eating cold food like ice cream, cold drinks with ice, or milkshakes ice can cause a sudden, sharp head pain. This type of brief intense head pain is also called “brain freeze” or an “ice cream headache.” The sharp pain can be felt at the front of your head and can affect both sides.

The reason for the sharp pain in the head after eating something cold is possibly due to the cold affecting blood vessels your head. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic explain that the freezing cold food or drink causes the blood vessels to constrict. The sharp pain happens when the blood vessels relax and blood continues to flow normally.5

The sharp stabbing head pains associated with eating something cold usually fade away very quickly. However, if you frequently suffer from “ice cream headaches,” you should try drinking something warmer than whatever caused the headache and drink slowly.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of your head around one of your eyes. Cluster headaches are caused by a nerve that is responsible for pain in your face. These types of severe headaches can come on very suddenly and the pain can be more intense than a migraine attack. Some people only have one severe attack a year whereas others experience multiple stabbing headaches a day.

Dr. Richard Senelick on WebMD says that the sharp pain in the head behind your eye can spread to other areas of your face and make your scalp tender. You may also feel your blood pulsing inside your head. The cluster headaches tend to occur at regular times and therefore are sometimes called “alarm clock headaches.”6

Cluster headaches don’t cause nausea or vomiting. Along with the sharp pains in your head, you may also experience a swollen or drooping eye, eye redness, runny nose, increased sensitivity to light or sweating. Keeping a “headache diary” can help to identify triggers to help prevent cluster headache attacks in the future.

Tension headaches

A tension headache (often called stress headaches) is the most common type of headache. Tension headaches cause mild to intense pain, tightness, or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. It may be felt like a clamp squeezing the skull.

Severe tension headaches can cause severe pains in your head. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, tension headaches are rarely severe.7

Occipital neuralgia

If the severe stabbing pain is felt at the back of your head, it could be a symptom of occipital neuralgia. The head pain is caused by irritation of the occipital nerves that run from the top of your neck to the back of your head.

Neurologist, Dr. Danette C. Taylor says that some of the causes of occipital neuralgia are an injury to the neck or back of the head, arthritis, tight neck muscles, or spinal damage. Sometimes, diabetes can cause occipital neuralgia because of infection or inflammation to blood vessels in the back of the neck.8

To help get rid of the pain caused by occipital neuralgia, Dr. Taylor recommends using a heat pack, getting you a neck massage, having a course of physical therapy, and getting plenty of rest. If the pain is very severe, you doctor may recommend treatments to block the nerve pain.

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Severe hangover

One of the consequences of drinking too much alcohol is a severe hangover that causes an agonizing throbbing headache. Waking up in the morning with an alcohol hangover headache is one of the most common types of headache. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the pain can range from a mild dull ache to a severe stabbing pain in your head.

Researchers have found that it’s not just dehydration that causes alcohol-induced headaches. The journal PLoS One published a study showing that ethanol in alcohol causes an inflammatory response in the blood vessels in your head. This, together with dehydration, can cause severe headaches after consuming a lot of alcoholic beverages.9

The research also found that migraine sufferers are prone to more severe hangover headaches. Excessive alcohol use can damage your liver and many people are surprised at how long alcohol actually stays in their system.

Trigeminal neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia (TN), also called tic douloureux, is a chronic pain condition caused by disorder of the nerves in your face. One of the symptoms of Trigeminal neuralgia is intense pain in your head. The most common type of pain that trigeminal neuralgia causes affects only one side of the face at a time. Doctors from WebMD say that the nerve pain can also affect your left or right side of your forehead, however, sometimes, the pain can be felt on both sides of your head.10

Trigeminal neuralgia can be triggered very easily by something as simple as brushing your teeth, washing your face or eating. The facial and head pain that trigeminal neuralgia causes can affect your daily activities and is usually managed by medication.11

Encephalitis

Serious cases of encephalitis can cause very severe headaches along with nausea, vomiting, speech problems, and hearing problems. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection or autoimmune response in the body. A common cause of encephalitis is a tick bite which infects a person causing swelling in the brain.

Dr. Tim Kenny on Patient.info says that encephalitis can also be caused by the herpes simplex virus, chickenpox, virus, and the flu. The common encephalitis symptoms are headaches, fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. If left untreated, you may develop severe head pains.12

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With the proper treatment, most people recover from encephalitis with no problems. However, encephalitis can result in brain damage if you don’t get prompt treatment. If you notice any of the above symptoms, you should seek prompt medical advice.

Stroke

One of the less well-known signs of a stroke is a severe headache. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off and can leave a person paralyzed or with brain damage. To help recognize the first signs of stroke, doctors use the acronym F.A.S.T. Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time to act fast.

The Stroke Association says that with the typical symptoms of stroke, a person can experience confusion, vision problems, loss of balance, and severe headaches.13

The Journal of Headache and Pain reported on one case of a woman who experienced stabbing headaches prior to suffering a stroke.14

There are many practical ways that you can lower your risk of stroke. Some of the best ways are to be physically active, control your weight, eat healthily, and take any medication that you have been prescribed.

Brain aneurysm

A sudden, severe sharp pain in your head could be the first sign of a brain aneurysm. A brain aneurysm can quickly become a life-threatening condition and needs prompt medical attention. This is because the sharp pain in the head is caused by a leaking or ruptured blood vessel around the lining of the brain.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that along with a severe headache, a brain aneurysm will cause a stiff neck, nausea, drooping eyelid, confusion, and loss of consciousness. If you experience any of those symptoms along with severe shooting head pain, you should call your doctor immediately.15

Brain tumor

A brain tumor can cause pressure on the nerves and blood vessels inside your skull.  Brain tumors cause headaches and seizures and can sometimes result in severe headaches, especially in the morning. These head pains could be made worse by coughing, sneezing, or exercising. It is important to note that Cancer Research UK says that if a severe headache is your only symptom, it is very unlikely that you have a brain tumor.16

Sharp Pain in Head – When to See a Doctor

Most headaches, even sharp pains in your head, aren’t a symptom of a serious medical condition. Usually, the sharp, stabbing pains are caused by a trigger or some event that affects the blood vessels and nerves in your head.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that you should see a doctor for severe headaches if they are accompanied by any of the following conditions:1

  • A stiff neck that accompanies a sudden, severe headache.
  • You have nausea, vomiting, or a fever and severe head pains that aren’t related to another illness.
  • You have stabbing head pains after a head injury.
  • You experience seizures, shortness of breath, loss of sensations or weakness in any part of your body.
  • You have a drooping eye or eyelid with a severe headache.
  • You are over the age of 50 and start getting severe, stabbing pains in your head.

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Article Sources:

  1. NINDS. Headache. Hope through research.
  2. NHS. Migraine.
  3. Eur J Neurol. 2005 Sep;12(9):715-8.
  4. WebMD. Ice pick headaches.
  5. MayoClinic. Ice cream headaches.
  6. WebMD. Cluster headaches.
  7. ClevelandClinic. Tension headaches.
  8. MedicineNet. Occipital neuralgia.
  9. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15963.
  10. WebMD. Facial pain and trigeminal neuralgia.
  11. NHS. Trigeminal neuralgia.
  12. Patient. Encephalitis.
  13. StrokeAssociation. More stroke warning signs and symptoms.
  14. J Headache Pain. 2011 Jun; 12(3): 373–375.
  15. CancerResearchUK. Brain tumour.
  16. MayoClinic. Brain aneurysm.
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One Response to Sharp Pain in Head: Causes and When to See a Doctor Immediately

  1. Amjad Muawad says:

    Hi, over 10 years ago I was drinking very heavy and ended up with a brainstem lesion which ive put down to the fact I wasnt eating well either. I took a long break from drinking and started doing it sensibly which I did well for 10 years but then had to stop to take care of my mum. I did fine the first 2 years but this last year Ive started getting the worst headaches which my neurologist put down to trigeminal neuralgia but Ive been discharged now. Since then the headaches have spread all over my head and medication is barely working, and its making me quite nervous. I have nystagmus and a bit of tinnitus also. Both of these vary throughout the day. I also get tachardiya when this happens but im assuming its just a response. Is it possible im getting another brain lesion? Many thanks for reading all of this.

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