What Your Headache Location Tells You

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

The headaches people usually get are tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. Cluster headaches don't happen as often, but men are five times more likely to get them.

Pain location

Most common cause

Other possible causes

Back of your head or neck

Tension headache

Migraine

Arthritis in your upper spine

Occipital neuralgia

Top of your head

"Hair band" area

Tension headache

Migraine

Occipital neuralgia

Severe hypertension (rare)

Aneurysm or bleeding, called a hemorrhagic stroke (rare)

Forehead

Cheeks

Behind both eyes

Tension headache

Migraine

Cluster headache

Sinus infection

Behind one eye

Cluster headache

Migraine

Occipital neuralgia

Eye infection

Aneurysm (rare)

Temples

Tension headache

Migraine

Cluster headache

Temporal arteritis (more common in the elderly)

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

Behind the ear

Ear infection (more common in children)

Occipital neuralgia

Sinus infection

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

Dental problems

On one side of your head

Migraine

Cluster headache

Hemicrania continua (rare)

Aneurysm (rare)

Not sure

Hurts all over

Tension headache

Migraine

Sinus infection

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:

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.

Continued

Other things that could cause migraine-like symptoms, but are less likely, are:

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.

Treatment

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 stronger prescription meds and preventive treatments. Using OTC products on most days can set you up for overuse headaches, too.

Pain medicines, decongestants, and antihistamines may bring some relief from true sinus headaches, but you'll need to deal with the infection that brought it on, too.

Your doctor should get involved for causes like nerve pain or autoimmune diseases.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 25, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

UpToDate: "Patient education: Headache causes and diagnosis in adults (Beyond the Basics)," "Patient education: Migraines in adults (Beyond the Basics)," "Occipital neuralgia."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Headache: When to worry, what to do," "5 migraine questions answered."

National Headache Foundation: "Arthritis."

Cleveland Clinic: "Headaches: Less Frequent Types," "Your Jaw May Be to Blame for Your Migraine Headaches."

Journal of Neurosciences in Rural Practice: "Giant cell arteritis or tension-type headache?: A differential diagnostic dilemma."

Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice: "Neurologic Syndromes of the Head and Neck."

American Migraine Foundation: "Hemicrania Continua," "Do I Need To Have My Eyes Checked If My Head Hurts?" "Treatment of Cluster Headache."

Mayo Clinic: "Brain aneurysm: Symptoms & causes," "Headaches and hormones: What's the connection?" "Sinus headaches: Symptoms & causes," "Migraine: Diagnosis & treatment," "Thunderclap headaches: Symptoms & causes."

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Headaches Connected to Allergies and Sinus Problems."

Sajadi-Ernazarova, K., Hamilton, R., Caffeine, Withdrawal, StatPearls Publishing, 2018.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Hangover Headache," "Headache: Could It Be a Brain Tumor?"

Migraine Trust: "Hypoglycaemia."

Arthritis Foundation: "Osteoarthritis and Headaches."

© 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination