A splitting pain in your forehead. A pounding pulse in your temples. A stabbing sensation behind your eyes. Headaches can hit you from all sides. But have you ever wondered what your headache location means, and what it can tell you about your health?
Where your head pain is located can offer some clues about what's causing it and the best way to treat it. Here, Teshamae Monteith, MD, associate professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and member of the American Neurological Association, helps us decipher what different headache locations mean and how to address them.
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While most headaches aren’t dangerous, some may signal a more serious health condition. Seek immediate medical care if you experience head pain along with fever, weight loss, loss of vision, confusion, fainting, loss of consciousness, weakness, imbalances or speech impairment, Dr. Monteith says.
1. Location: Around Your Whole Head
Ever feel like there's a tight band squeezing your whole head? "This is a typical description of a tension headache," Dr. Monteith says.
Commonly triggered by stress and poor sleep, tension headaches — characterized by pressure and tightness around your entire head — often go hand in hand with tension in the neck, shoulders and jaw, according to Baystate Health.
Fix it: Over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are often successful in tending to tension headaches, per Baystate Health. You can also try a few tension-relieving stretches. And because lifestyle factors may set them off, getting quality sleep and learning to manage stress may also be helpful.
The location of your head pain is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to identifying the type of headache you have. Other factors such as duration, frequency, additional associated symptoms and a person’s medical history are useful in narrowing down the underlying cause of a headache, Dr. Monteith says.
2. Location: Behind One of Your Eyes
An excruciating headache that hits you fast and furious behind one of your eyes is often caused by trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias, a group of primary headache disorders defined by unilateral head pain, Dr. Monteith says. The most common of these is the cluster headache, she adds.
This kind of debilitating headache occurs in clusters (hence the name) of frequent attacks, which can persist for weeks or months, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While pain is usually located behind or around one eye, it can spread to other areas of your face, head and neck. Other symptoms associated with cluster headaches are, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Excessive tearing
- Redness of your eye on the affected side
- Stuffy or runny nose on the affected side
- Forehead or facial sweating on the affected side
- Pale skin (pallor) or flushing on your face
- Swelling around your eye on the affected side
- Drooping eyelid on the affected side
Fix it: While there's no cure for cluster headaches, some acute and preventive therapies can be helpful. Cluster headaches are often treated with oxygen, medications (including nerve blocks and steroids, among many others) and vagal nerve stimulation (electrical stimulation to the vagus nerve through the skin), Dr. Monteith says.
3. Location: Back of Your Head and Neck
If your headache hangs around the back of your head, you may be dealing with a cervicogenic headache. Known as a secondary headache, this type of head pain doesn't originate in your head but rather radiates up from your neck, according to Baystate Health.
Indeed, cervicogenic headaches are often caused by neck problems (like arthritis, pinched nerves and strained or sprained neck muscles) or injuries (like neck fractures or whiplash), per the Cleveland Clinic. The pain usually begins at the base of your skull and radiates up one side of your head. "This is because there is functional connectivity of pain sensitive structures in the head and neck regions," Dr. Monteith says.
Difficulty moving your head and pain that grows worse when you move your neck are other telltale signs of a cervicogenic headache, according to the Cleveland Clinic.This is different from neck rigidity (or restricted movement) which is usually a sign associated with meningitis. But you'll typically feel other symptoms like fever, chills and vomiting which would need immediate medical attention, per the Mayo Clinic.
Still, another type of headache called occipital neuralgia can also be the source of stabbing pains in the upper neck, back of the head and behind the ears, Dr. Monteith says. Like cervicogenic headaches, occipital neuralgia pain often starts in the neck and then spreads upwards.
With occipital neuralgia, pain results from the irritation or injury to the occipital nerves, which span from the neck to the back of the head and up to the scalp, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). This also explains why people with this condition can experience symptoms such as scalp soreness and light sensitivity.
Fix it: For cervicogenic headaches, physical therapy is an important tool to treat the affected neck muscles, which are the root of the head pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Massage can also be helpful for relieving muscle tension and is also recommended for people with occipital neuralgia, per the NINDS.
4. Location: One Side of Your Head
While many types of headaches can present primarily on one side of the head, migraine (the most common primary headache disorder) is the most common, Dr. Monteith says.
Migraines can produce severe throbbing or pulsing unilateral head pain that may last for hours or even days, according to Baystate Health. Symptoms like extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting usually accompany the pain, per the Mayo Clinic.
Cervicogenic headaches and cluster headaches can also cause one-sided headaches, Dr. Monteith adds.
Fix it: If you get migraines, talk to your doctor, who can help you form a proper treatment plan, which may involve medication and avoiding certain triggers.
5. Location: Front of Your Head and Face
Throbbing head and facial pain and pressure around the eyes, cheeks and forehead could signal a sinus headache. These hounding headaches are often accompanied by nasal congestion and fatigue and worsen if you bend forward, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Still, because migraines can manifest similar symptoms, sometimes it's difficult to differentiate between the two types of headaches. In fact, nearly 90 percent of people who complain of sinus headaches are later diagnosed with migraines, per the Mayo Clinic.
But there are some distinctions that set them apart: Sinus headaches aren't linked with nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light or sound (all common symptoms of migraines) but they are associated with toothaches in the upper part of the mouth (not a migraine feature), according to the Mayo Clinic. What's more, sinus headaches persist for several days, while most migraines typically last hours to a few days.
Fix it: Because sinus headaches usually occur in conjunction with seasonal allergies, an upper respiratory infection or the common cold, treating these underlying issues can help resolve the head pain.
6. Location: In Your Temples
"Many headache disorders can occur in the temples, including migraines or tension-type headaches," Dr. Monteith says.
However, sometimes pain in the temples can be due to a rare condition known as temporal arteritis, she adds. More common in people over the age of 50, temporal arteritis occurs when the blood vessels near the temples become inflamed and constricted, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition to a throbbing, constant headache, other symptoms may involve:
- Fatigue (or malaise, a general feeling of illness)
- Jaw pain that may become worse after chewing
- Tenderness at the scalp or temples (which is different from migraines or tension headaches)
- Vision problems
- Muscle aches in the upper arms or shoulders, hips, upper thighs, lower back and buttocks
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
Fix it: Temporal arteritis must be treated urgently — with medications such as steroids — as it can lead to blindness and other complications, Dr. Monteith says.
- Baystate Health: “Where Are Migraines Located? Learn The Types Of Headaches And Migraine Areas”
- Mayo Clinic: “Migraine”
- Mayo Clinic: “Cluster headache”
- Cleveland Clinic: “8 Things to Know About Cervicogenic Headaches”
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Occipital Neuralgia Information Page”
- Mayo Clinic: “Sinus headaches”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Temporal arteritis”
- Mayo Clinic: "Meningitis"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.