What Does a Headache on the Top of Your Head Mean?

There’s no one-size-fits all way to know why you got a headache in a certain place. Different people may experience headaches differently, including in where they strike and how intense the pain is. Pain on the top of your head could mean a number of things, and you’ll want to watch for other symptoms that may suggest what’s going on and the reason for it.

Tension Headaches

It’s not always clear what causes them. But it may be that tension builds in your muscles when you hunch over your computer for hours or pin your phone to your ear with your shoulder. Or perhaps you tense the muscles in your neck, face, jaw, and scalp because of stress or anxiety.

A hot shower, warming pad, and over-the-counter meds can help. Regular exercise along with meditation and other relaxation approaches might stop tension headaches before they start.

Migraine

A throbbing pain starts small and builds, sometimes to very high intensity. It’s usually on one side of the head, but it may also include some or all of the top of your head. Everyday movements, like house chores and walking, can make it worse.

During a migraine, you may be more sensitive to light, noise, and smells, and you could get nauseous enough to vomit. Another common sign is an “aura” that looks like flashing lights or waves that you see just before or during a migraine.

It’s often hard to tell what causes a migraine, but doctors do know of some triggers: Hormone changes, stress, anxiety, sleep problems, strong odors, tobacco, and missed meals. Trigger foods include coffee, wine, chocolate, aged cheeses, pickled goods, and processed meats. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes that can help lessen or prevent your migraines.

When you have a migraine, resting in a quiet, dark room can help bring relief. It also might be good to drink some caffeine and get plenty of fluids, especially if you’re vomiting. Your doctor might suggest or prescribe medication that will work best for you.

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Cluster Headaches

The "cluster" refers to the way they repeat, almost daily, sometimes for weeks at a time.

These headaches tend to be very painful, on one side of the head behind the eye, and happen at the same time of the day. Though the pain doesn’t usually start on the top of the head, it could radiate there as the headache gets worse.

You may have a migraine-like aura and nausea just before each one. Pain usually peaks 5-10 minutes after it starts and can last up to 3 hours. Your nose and eye may get red and swollen on the headache side, and you may be anxious and sensitive to light, sounds, or smells.

The cause usually isn’t clear, but sleep problems, alcohol, and smoking set off these headaches in some people. You may also be more likely to have cluster headaches if you’ve had a head injury before. Talk to your doctor about treatment.

Secondary Headaches

“Secondary” means that some other problem caused your headache. There are many reasons, such as a fever, infection, high blood pressure, head injury, and mental or emotional problems.

Most headaches aren’t due to an emergency condition, such as a bulging blood vessel in the brain (aneurysm). But call 911 if you get a sudden headache with no obvious cause that’s extremely intense. It might be a sign the aneurysm is leaking or has burst (called a hemorrhagic stroke). If you think it might be a stroke, remember FAST: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech problems? Time to call 911. You should also get emergency care if you:

  • Have a stiff neck along with your severe headache.
  • Have had a head injury
  • Pass out
  • Have blurry vision
  • Feel dizzy, confused, or nauseous
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on September 22, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Stroke Association: “Stroke Symptoms.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Headache.”

Mayo Clinic: “Tension headache,” “Brain aneurysm,” “Headache: When to see a doctor.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Headache: Hope Through Research.”

Sait Ashina, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; assistant professor of neurology, Harvard Medical School.

CDC: “Meningococcal Disease.”

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