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Headache Behind the Eye? Why It Happens, What Helps

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on December 13, 2022

What Is a Headache Behind the Eye?

If you feel pain behind your eyes, there are many possible causes. There's a good chance it could be a specific type of headache.

Causes of Headache Behind the Eye

Migraine headaches

These headaches often begin with pain around your eye and temple. They can spread to the back of your head. You might also have an aura, which can include visual signs like a halo or flashing lights that sometimes come before the pain starts.

You may also have nausea, a runny nose, or congestion. You could be sensitive to light, sounds, or smells. Migraine headaches can last several hours to a few days.

Tension headaches

These are the most common type of headache. They usually cause a dull pain on both sides of your head or across the front of your head, behind your eyes. Your shoulders and neck may also hurt. Tension headaches might last 20 minutes to a few hours.

Cluster headaches

These cause severe pain around your eyes, often around just one eye. They usually come in groups. You may have several of them every day for weeks and then not have any for a year or more before they start again.

Along with the pain, you may also have watery eyes, congestion, and a red, flushed face. The attacks last 30 to 60 minutes and are so strong that you may be restless and can't stand still while they happen. Cluster headaches aren't very common and mostly happen in men.

Sinus headaches

A sinus infection (sinusitis) can cause a headache around your eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, and upper teeth. This is where your sinuses are. You’ll often also have a fever, congestion, and a thick nasal discharge. The pain usually gets worse throughout the day.

True sinus headaches are rare. Migraine and cluster headaches are often mistaken for sinus headaches.

Eyestrain

This is when your eyes get tired from working too hard from doing things like staring at a computer screen or driving for a long time.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Sore, itching, burning eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Sore shoulders or back

Eyestrain isn't serious and usually goes away when you rest your eyes.

Headache Behind the Eye Triggers

Different things may set off each type of headache.

You might get migraines because of:

  • A lack of sleep
  • Weather changes
  • Stress
  • Lights
  • Noises
  • Smells
  • Things you eat or drink, like alcohol, chocolate, or MSG
  • Missing a meal

Things that may give you a tension headache include:

  • Stress
  • Eyestrain
  • Poor posture
  • Problems with the muscles or joints in your neck or jaw
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration or missing a meal
  • Bright sunlight
  • Noise
  • Certain smells

Cluster headaches are often triggered by alcohol, smoking, or certain medications.

Headache Behind the Eye Treatment

Learning to avoid your triggers may prevent headaches or make them less painful. If you do get one, there are many kinds of treatments.

Medication for headache behind the eye

Over-the-counter pain medicine can ease occasional headaches. It may even help with migraine if you take it early enough. Doctors often recommend acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen. But remember that taking them too often can trigger overuse headaches.

If you get frequent tension headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication. Antidepressants like amitriptyline help many people.

Sometimes, prescription drugs are the only things that will ease migraine pain. Some of the most common are triptans such as almotriptan (Axert), eletriptan (Relpax), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex), and zolmitriptan (Zomig). They help most people within 2 hours if taken early enough. People who get chronic migraines often take medicine like beta-blockers or antidepressants every day to help cut back on how many they have.

Breathing pure oxygen may bring relief of cluster headaches. Injected triptans like sumatriptan and lidocaine nose drops might also help. Some people take medicines such as verapamil (Calan, Verelan) or prednisone to prevent attacks.

Treat a sinus headache by clearing up the infection. Your doctor might suggest antibiotics and decongestants.

Home remedies for headache behind the eye

Caffeine or ice packs may help with migraine pain.

For a tension headache, try a heating pad or a warm shower, or rest until the headache goes away. It can also help to find better ways to handle stress. Learn relaxation techniques like yoga or deep breathing. Try not to skip meals or get too tired.

When you have a sinus infection, breathe in warm, moist air from a vaporizer or a pot of boiling water to ease congestion. Warm compresses can also help.

If your eyes are often strained, take breaks and blink more. Artificial tears may also refresh your eyes. Check with your doctor to make sure your vision prescription is up to date, and ask about exercises to strengthen eye muscles.

Waking Up With a Headache Behind the Eyes?

If you wake up in the morning with a pounding headache behind your eyes, you're not alone. Here's a look at some common causes of morning headaches:

Hangovers. After drinking too much alcohol, when your blood alcohol content drops back to normal or close to it, you start to feel symptoms that can include headaches. They can be caused by a couple of things. When you drink, the alcohol causes your body to make more urine, which can cause you to become dehydrated. The alcohol also causes your blood vessels to expand, which can lead to headaches. If you have more severe symptoms like confusion, seizures, slow breathing, or loss of consciousness, get medical help right away.

Migraine. The most common time for a migraine to happen is the early morning as pain medication you took before you went to sleep begins to wear off. But migraine headaches are complicated. They’re different for everybody. If you have a migraine or headache of any type that continually wakes you in the morning and gets in the way of your work or personal life, a doctor's visit may be in order. Treatments, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, are available.

Sleep apnea. This is a condition where your throat muscles partially collapse while you sleep and interrupt your breathing. Other signs of sleep apnea include dry mouth and snoring. Sleep apnea is a serious health problem. Your doctor may suggest that you do a sleep test. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine might help, and lifestyle changes like losing weight and rolling off your back while you sleep could also help you get better rest.

Other sleep disorders. The relationship between sleep and headaches is a tricky one. Sometimes headaches are the cause of poor sleep, sometimes they're the result of it. If it's hard to get to sleep, stay asleep, or if you just wake up too early, you may have insomnia. It’s been tied to some forms of chronic headaches, including morning headaches. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders mess with when you fall to sleep or wake up. They can lead to morning headaches, too. If you think you may have a sleep disorder, see your doctor.

Overmedication. A medication overuse headache (MOH) can happen if you’re already prone to headaches and you take a lot of pain meds. A MOH usually hits right when you wake up. For those with chronic headaches, using medication more than 2 or 3 days a week may be too much. Check with your doctor about this. They can help you treat your headaches without overusing pain meds.

TMJ. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your jaw to your skull. Pain in the joint and its surrounding muscles, caused by things like too much gum chewing or clenching and grinding your teeth at night, can bring a morning headache. A dentist can prescribe an oral device to keep you from grinding your teeth at night. 

Show Sources

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