What Causes a Throbbing Headache?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 11, 2019

Throbbing pain is one of the symptoms of a headache. It’s a pulsing, beating sensation that happens over and over again. Anyone can get this type of headache, but it’s most likely to happen to women.

Certain conditions like migraines or caffeine withdrawal can trigger a throbbing headache. Drinking too much alcohol can cause one, too.

Caffeine Withdrawal

If you regularly eat or drink products with caffeine, it’s possible to become hooked. Researchers say that as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine, or one small cup of coffee a day, can create an addiction.

If you suddenly cut back or stop having caffeine, you might feel symptoms of withdrawal -- negative and sometimes painful physical symptoms that hit when you cut back or stop using an addictive drug.

In general, the more caffeine you’re used to, the worse your withdrawal symptoms will be. One sign of caffeine withdrawal is a throbbing headache, which happens when your blood vessels expand too much.

Besides a headache, there are other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. They include:

  • Low energy
  • Sleepiness
  • Depressed mood
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling cranky or annoyed easily
  • Foggy feeling
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle pain and stiffness

Eating or drinking something with caffeine in it is a quick way to get rid of withdrawal symptoms, including a throbbing headache.

But if you want to kick your caffeine addiction and these symptoms for good, experts say to slowly taper off caffeine and substitute it with products that don’t have caffeine.

In the meantime, you can treat your headache by:

  • Taking over-the-counter pain medicine
  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting rest


It’s one of the effects of drinking too much alcohol. It can last up to 3 days after drinking but likely won’t last that long.

One symptom of a hangover is throbbing pain on both sides of your head. This is due to alcohol widening and irritating the blood vessels in your brain and nearby tissue.

Other hangover symptoms include:

  • Weak or tired feeling
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and motion

Even after the alcohol is gone from your system, you could still have trouble with:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Reaction time
  • Hand and finger coordination

Researchers are still studying whether hangover treatments actually work. But they recommend:

Drinking liquids. Things like water, broth, and some sports drinks prevent dehydration.

Avoiding alcohol. Sometimes called the “hair of the dog,” the so-called hangover cure of more drinking will only make you feel worse as you get more dehydrated.

Taking a pain reliever. Avoid acetaminophen, since it can cause liver swelling and failure. Take an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) instead.

Taking vitamin B6. Whether it’s from food or supplements, getting some vitamin B6 before or after you drink could help prevent a headache.

Go to the hospital right away if your symptoms don’t go away after a few days, or you’re showing signs of an alcohol overdose, which include:


Migraines are a type of headache that happen over and over again. Your genes could determine whether or not you’ll get them.

Many things trigger migraines, including stress, loud noises, certain foods, or changes in the weather. This type of headache causes throbbing or pulsing pain, often on one side of your head.

A migraine usually starts slowly, then ramps up and causes throbbing or pulsing pain. It’s possible to have migraine without a headache, but still be sensitive to light, noise, and odors, feel sick to your stomach and throw up, or have pain when you move, cough, or sneeze.

The goal of migraine treatment is to ease your symptoms and stop future headaches. Your doctor could recommend a mix of medicine and home remedies:

Pain relief medication. Over-the-counter or prescription medicine that could be tablets, nasal sprays, or shots. It’s best to take them at the first sign of a migraine.

Preventive medication. You’ll take these drugs, maybe as often as every day, to lessen the number of migraine attacks you have and help make them less severe.

Rest. Go to a quiet, dark room, close your eyes, and take a break.

Cold therapy. Cold packs or caps on your forehead or neck can cool the blood flowing through your vessels and ease inflammation.

WebMD Medical Reference



Alcohol and Drug Foundation: “What is withdrawal?”

Psychopharmacology: “A critical review of caffeine withdrawal: empirical validation of symptoms and signs, incidence, severity, and associated features.”

StatPearls Publishing: “Caffeine, Withdrawal.”

National Headache Foundation: “The Complete Headache Chart.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Caffeine Withdrawal Recognized as a Disorder,” “Hangover Headache.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “How to handle a hangover.”

University of Texas at Austin, University Health Services: “Hangover Self-Care Information.”

Hawai’i Journal of Medicine & Public Health: “Randomized Controlled Trial: Targeted Neck Cooling in the Treatment of the Migraine Patient.”

MedlinePlus: “Migraine.”

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine.”

Northwestern Medicine: “Why Women Have More Headaches Than Men.”

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