Where your head hurts isn't a foolproof way to diagnose the cause, but the location of your headache can be a good starting point for figuring out the root of the problem.
Different types of headaches can show up in similar places though, so what it feels like will also help you narrow down a plan for how to deal with your pain and decide when to see a doctor.
Common Headache Types by Location
Most common cause
Other possible causes
Back of your head or neck
Top of your head
"Hair band" area
Severe hypertension (rare)
Aneurysm or bleeding, called a hemorrhagic stroke (rare)
Behind both eyes
Behind one eye
Temporal arteritis (more common in the elderly)
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
Behind the ear
Ear infection (more common in children)
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
On one side of your head
Hemicrania continua (rare)
Hurts all over
Consider the Type of Pain, Too
A dull, "tightening" feeling that doesn't throb, or when your head is tender to the touch, is probably a tension headache. These are very common. Many things can set one off, including:
- Lack of sleep
- Caffeine withdrawal
- Hormones related to your period
- After an injury or trauma
- Exercising hard or for a long time
- Hunger or dehydration
- Brain freeze
- Rebound, after stopping an anti-headache medication
- High altitude you're not used to
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, when your headache comes with a clicking sound or popping in your jaw
Pain that's throbbing and lasts a while, or that comes with nausea or changes in your vision or other senses, probably means a migraine. Light and noise make it worse. A migraine could hurt on just one side, but not for everyone. It's not very common, but a migraine might make your nose runny or stuffy and your eyes watery, so you mistake it for a sinus infection. When you get migraines, they're typically triggered by the same things each time. Recognizing the pattern is key to avoiding them.
Other things that could cause migraine-like symptoms, but are much less likely, are:
- Autoimmune diseases such as arthritis or giant cell arteritis, an autoimmune disease that cases joint pain, facial pain (esp forehead) and sometimes difficulty with vision that can be permanent.
- Hemicrania continua, a one-sided headache that doesn't go away
- Brain tumors
Sharp, searing, one-sided pain that comes on quickly but doesn't last long is probably a cluster headache, especially if it happens over and over, about the same time for several days. This type tends to run in families. These headaches can also give you a stuffy, runny nose and make you sweat and tear up. You probably won't be able to sit still.
If your headache comes with cold-like symptoms and pressure or tenderness in your face, you could have a sinus headache. They're often confused with other types, and they're not as common as you may think.
Attacks of brief, sharp, "electric shock" jolts that last only a few minutes or seconds could be occipital neuralgia. It's a chronic disorder caused by pinched or damaged nerves that run from your spinal cord to your scalp.
A stroke, aneurysm, or hemorrhage will feel like an intensely painful "thunderclap" -- the worst headache of your life. But unless the pain is sudden and very severe, it's much more likely to be a common headache. If you think it's a serious condition, you should call 911 right away.
For tension headaches and migraines, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief with ingredients such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen can help. Repeated or severe migraines and cluster headaches are harder to treat. If OTC medicines aren't doing the trick, talk to your doctor about clarifying the diagnoses whether stronger prescription meds aer needed as well as preventive treatments. Using OTC products on most days can set you up for overuse headaches, too.
Your doctor should get involved for causes like nerve pain or autoimmune diseases.