Thunderclap Headaches

Sudden and strong, like a clap of thunder, these headaches hit you with a blast of severe pain and can reach their peak in just 60 seconds. You may feel relief in about an hour. But sometimes, the pain can last up to 10 days.


Thunderclap headaches could be caused by bleeding from an artery into the space surrounding your brain. This is known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Arteries are vessels that supply blood to your brain.

A thunderclap headache could also be caused by any of the following:

  • Small tears in the arteries of your head or neck
  • A burst artery or aneurysm, which is a swollen, weak area in the artery
  • Blocked veins in your head
  • Leaking spinal fluid
  • Rapid changes in blood pressure
  • An infection in your brain

Some activities such as the following could trigger a thunderclap headache:

  • Hard, physical labor
  • Taking certain drugs, including illegal ones
  • Hitting warm or hot water too fast, such as when you first enter a shower or bath


Unlike a migraine, thunderclap headaches seem to come on suddenly. The pain grabs your attention in the same way a clap of thunder does. You can feel pain anywhere on your head or neck. You may even feel it in your back.

You might also have several other symptoms, including:


Drugs called analgesics may help relieve the pain.

To figure out what’s causing your thunderclap headaches, the doctor may ask for a CT scan or an MRI of your brain. He may also give you a test called a spinal tap to examine your spinal fluid.

Sometimes, drugs called calcium-channel blockers, which are used to treat high blood pressure, can help prevent these headaches.

When to Seek Emergency Help

Thunderclap headaches can be a sign of a serious, even life threatening, medical problem. Call 911 right away if you think you have one. There may be bleeding in your brain or other problems that need emergency care.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 22, 2015


SOURCES: "Thunderclap Headaches."

National Headache Foundation: "Case Studies in Headaches: Thunderclap Headaches."

International Headache Society

Cheng, Y. Journal of Headache and Pain, published online March 2014.

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