Headache Behind the Eye? Why It Happens, What Helps

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 18, 2024
8 min read

Several types of headaches can cause pain behind the eyes. 

You might feel pain behind one eye (unilateral) or both eyes (bilateral). The pain may throb in time with your pulse, or it could be steady. It could feel like it's starting at the eye, your sinuses, or inside your head. But the location of a headache doesn't necessarily reveal its cause.



Types of headaches that can cause pain behind your eyes include migraines, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, and tension headaches. Eyestrain can also cause this kind of pain.

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.

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

Nearly all migraine attacks and some other types of headaches involve the trigeminal nerve, which transmits sensations from your face to your brain. It has three branches. One gives feeling to your eyes and forehead; another covers your lower eyelids and middle of your face; and the third is responsible for your jaws, gums, and lower lip.

Tension headaches

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

You can get them less than 15 times per month (acute) or more often (chronic). They're slightly more common in women (and those assigned female at birth) 

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

These cause intense 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. They tend to happen around the same time each day, often 2-3 hours after you fall asleep.

Along with the pain, you may also have watery eyes, droopy eyelids, congestion, and a 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 (or those assigned as male at birth).

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

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.


This is when your eyes get tired from working too hard, such as when you drive for a long time. You can get computer eyestrain, sometimes called computer vision syndrome or digital eyestrain, from staring at a computer or phone screen too long. Some things that can contribute to this include:

  • A screen that's too bright
  • Digital text that's too small
  • Sitting too close to the screen
  • Not blinking often enough 

You can also get eyestrain when you have uncorrected vision issues, such as nearsightedness or farsightedness. 

Other symptoms of eyestrain 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.

Learning to avoid your triggers may prevent headaches or make them less painful. It's also important to know how to relieve a headache behind your eyes once you get one.

There are many kinds of treatments.

Medication for a 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 could prescribe medication, such as prescription pain relievers or muscle relaxants. But it's important not to overuse them. 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. 

If you often get migraines, your doctor may prescribe medications you take regularly to prevent attacks. They include:

  • Blood pressure medications like beta-blockers
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Gepants
  • Monoclonal antibodies

Injections of botulinum toxin (Botox) may also help keep migraines at bay. If your migraine attacks are linked to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), using some types of hormonal birth control may lead to fewer headaches. 

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

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

Home remedies for a headache behind the eye

Some remedies you might try for migraine pain include:

  • Having a cup of tea or something else with a moderate amount of caffeine
  • A cold compress or ice pack
  • Resting in a dark, quiet room, or at least dimming the lights
  • A heating pad
  • Scalp massage
  • Drinking liquids to hydrate yourself, since dehydration can be a migraine trigger
  • Relaxation techniques like meditation and breathing exercises

Some people also get relief with alternative treatments like biofeedback, acupuncture, or acupressure (pressure point therapy).

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. 

When you're spending lots of time looking at a screen, follow the "20-20-20" rule: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen at an object that's at least 20 feet away. Hold your gaze there for at least 20 seconds.

Here's a look at some common causes of morning headaches:

Hangovers. When your blood alcohol content drops back to near-normal levels after you drink too much alcohol, you may start to feel symptoms that can include headaches. These headaches can be caused by a couple of things. When you drink, the alcohol causes your body to make more pee, which can cause you to become dehydrated. The alcohol also makes your blood vessels expand, which can trigger headaches. If you have more serious symptoms like confusion, seizures, slow breathing, or loss of consciousness, get medical help right away.

Migraine. The most common time to get a migraine is in the early morning. This may happen as pain medication you took before you went to sleep begins to wear off. But migraine headaches are complicated, and they're different for everybody. If you have a migraine or headache of any type that often wakes you in the morning and gets in the way of your work or personal life, see your doctor. Treatment, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, can help.

Sleep apnea. In this condition, your throat muscles partially collapse over and over again while you sleep. This repeatedly interrupts your breathing and briefly wakes you. 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. 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 cause poor sleep, and sometimes they're the result of it. If you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, or if you wake up too early, you may have insomnia. It's been linked to some forms of chronic headaches, including morning headaches. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders are problems with your body's internal sleep-and-wake schedule. 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 often take 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 medication.

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.

Several types of headaches can cause pain behind the eyes, including tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, and sinus headaches. Eyestrain can also cause this type of headache. You can prevent these headaches by avoiding things that trigger them, and you can treat them with medication or home remedies.

What does it mean when it hurts behind your eyes?

Eyestrain, tension headache, a migraine attack, cluster headache, or sinus infection can cause pain that starts behind the eyes. Less commonly, pain or pressure behind the eye could be a symptom of:

  • Thyroid eye disease, also called Graves' disease
  • Optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve
  • An injury to your eye socket
  • A brain aneurysm, if the pain is sudden and very serious

 What does a dehydration headache feel like?

Symptoms of a dehydration headache can vary a lot. It can cause pain over your whole head or in a concentrated area, like the back or side of your head. The pain can be mild or intense, constant or throbbing, and sharp or dull. It may get worse when you move around.

You will probably have other symptoms of dehydration like:

  • A dry mouth
  • Feeling light-headed or confused
  • Urine that looks dark

Where is a stress headache located?

A stress, or tension, headache often causes pain in your scalp and sides and back of the head, along with tightness in your neck and shoulders. But tension headaches can also cause pain behind one or both eyes.