What Does Your Headache Location Mean?
The location of your headache isn't a foolproof way to diagnose the cause, but it can be a good starting point for figuring out the root of the problem.
Keep in mind, though, that different types of headaches can show up in similar places. And locations for a particular type of headache, such as migraine or tension headaches, may vary from person to person.
What's most important is to pay close attention to the symptoms of your headache. This will help your doctor figure out the cause and the appropriate treatment plan.
Common Headache Types by Location
Main types of headaches
There are two main types of headaches: primary and secondary. With the primary type, the headache is the main issue and it has no specific cause. A secondary headache is triggered by pain or inflammation due to another condition.
Common primary headaches include tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. Headaches tied to infection, blood vessel problems, or injury are common secondary headaches. Headaches caused by mental health disorders are also considered secondary headaches.
Headaches on the right or left side of your head
Certain headaches may cause pain mostly or only on one side. They could affect either the left or right side of your head. They include:
- Migraine headache. This causes throbbing pain that you may feel mostly on one side. More than 1 out of every 10 people in the U.S. get migraine headaches. It's not clear what causes them. But many things can trigger them, including hormones, weather changes, lack of sleep, or stress. Migraines can last anywhere from less than an hour to several days.
- Cluster headache.This is a rare but very painful, piercing headache that starts suddenly and often affects one side of your head. You'll usually feel it in or around your eye. It can also cause face swelling, sweating, stuffy nose, droopy eyes, or tears on the same side as the pain.
- Hemicrania continua. This rare type causes constant pain on one side of your head that lasts a long time. It might get better or worse at times but doesn't stop. Hemicrania continua belongs to the same family of headache disorders as cluster headaches. It's more likely to affect women.
- Paroxysmal hemicrania. With this type, you have five or more bouts of intense pain in one day. Each lasts up to a half hour. This type is also uncommon and shares similarities with cluster headaches.
- SUNCT and SUNA. The full names of these rare headache disorders are short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks with conjunctival injection and tearing (SUNCT) and short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks with cranial autonomic symptoms (SUNA). Both cause short but sharp bursts of pain on one side, usually around your eye. You may also have teary eyes, drooping eyelids, a stuffy nose, and a sweaty face.
Headaches at the back of your head
- Cervicogenic headache. You might feel this secondary type at the back of your head or on one side. But it originates from your spine or neck. It's caused by spinal issues such as tumors, fractures, infections, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Occipital neuralgia. In this long-lasting condition, the occipital nerves that run from behind your ears over the scalp get pinched and inflamed. This can cause throbbing or jolting pain in your upper neck area, behind your ears, and the back of your head. The pain is similar to that of a migraine.
Headaches at the front of your head
- Sinus headache. When your sinuses are infected due to allergies, bacteria, or viruses, you could feel pain and pressure around your forehead, cheekbones, and nose. If you lean forward, the pain may get worse. It goes away when the infection clears.
- Ice cream headache. Also known as "brain freeze," this happens when you eat something very cold like ice cream. Eating or drinking cold things causes blood vessels in your mouth to constrict, triggering sharp, sudden pain around your forehead and temples. It only lasts a few minutes.
- Eyestrain headache. This usually happens after you spend a long time doing something that involves your eyes, such reading, using a computer, or sewing. You'll probably have eye discomfort along with a fairly mild headache. It's caused by problems with focus and alignment, so get an eye exam if this happens to you.
- Temporal arteritis. This happens when blood vessels around your temples that supply blood from the heart to the scalp become inflamed. It can cause constant, throbbing pain on one or both sides of your forehead. Other symptoms include scalp tenderness, vision problems, jaw pain, fever, fatigue, weight loss, and muscle aches. It usually affects people over 50.
Headaches all over your head
- Tension headache. This is the most common type of headache. Most people feel dull, squeezing pain like a tight band around the head. The pain can range from mild to serious. Common causes are stress, fatigue, shoulder or neck muscle pain, or jaw pain. Three in four adults get this type, some as often as three to four times a week. Usually, it lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours.
- Exertion headache. You get this type soon after doing a physical activity like running, weight lifting, or sex. You might notice throbbing pain on both sides of your head. Usually, it's short-lived. Over-the-counter pain medications should ease the pain.
- Thunderclap headache. This is a sudden, intense headache that strikes you like a thunderclap. It usually only lasts about a minute. It's rare and often a warning sign of something dangerous like a brain bleed due to a burst blood vessel or tumor. Get medical attention right away if this happens to you.
- Brain tumor. This is a rare cause of headache. If your headaches are triggered by a tumor, you'll likely have other symptoms like confusion, balance issues, speech problems, and numbness on one side of your body. If you often get headaches that are intense and get worse each time, tell your doctor.
Headaches at the top of your head
Some people feel tension headaches, migraines, or occipital neuralgia at the top of their heads.
Pain in the head and neck
- Cervicogenic headacheoroccipital neuralgia. It might cause pain in both your head and neck.
- Meningitis. When the thin membranes covering your brain and spinal cord get inflamed due to a viral or bacterial infection, it's called meningitis. It causes a bad headache, fever, and a stiff neck. Bending forward usually makes the pain worse. Other symptoms can include drowsiness or confusion. Get emergency medical care if you think you might have meningitis.
Chart of Headache Locations
|Pain location||Most common cause||Other possible causes|
|Back of your head or neck||Tension headache|
|Arthritis in your upper spine|
|Top of your head|
Severe hypertension (rare)
Aneurysm or bleeding called a hemorrhagic stroke (rare)
Behind both eyes
|Behind one eye||Cluster headache||Migraine|
Temporal arteritis (more common in the elderly)
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
|Behind the ear||Ear infection (more common in children)||Occipital neuralgia|
|On one side of your head||Migraine|
|Hemicrania continua (rare)|
Hurts all over
Types of Headache Pain
The location where you feel pain isn't the only clue your doctor can use to figure out what's causing your headaches. The quality of the pain is important, too.
A dull,"tightening" feeling that doesn't throb, or when your head is tender to the touch, is probably a tension headache. Many things can set one off, including:
- Lack of sleep
- Caffeine withdrawal
- Hormones related to your period
- 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
- 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 it's not this way for everyone. In some cases, a migraine might make your nose runny or stuffy and your eyes watery, so you could 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 causes joint pain, facial pain (especially in the forehead), and sometimes difficulty with vision that can be permanent
- Hemicrania continua
- 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 again and again at 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. It's often confused with other types, and it's 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.
A stroke, aneurysm, or hemorrhage will typically feel like an intensely painful "thunderclap," or the worst headache of your life. But unless the pain is sudden and very serious, 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 figuring out whether you need stronger prescription medicines or 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 also need to deal with the infection that brought it on.
Your doctor should get involved for causes like nerve pain or autoimmune diseases.
Things your doctor may ask you
To figure out the exact cause, your doctor needs to know about your symptoms. Write them down so you can clearly describe them. If you notice other symptoms along with your headache, tell your doctor.
For an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will do a detailed physical exam and take your medical history. Also, they'll ask you several headache-related questions such as:
- When did the headache start?
- What is the location of your headache?
- How often do you get headaches?
- How long do they last?
They may order additional tests like blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs if necessary.
There are many forms and types of headaches. The location of your headache pain may vary, depending on what's causing it. If you have frequent, serious headaches that don't go away on their own or after you take over-the-counter medications, tell your doctor.
Headache Location FAQs
Where are tension headaches located?
This varies from person to person and even from headache to headache in the same person. Tension headaches cause tightness or pressure that you might feel around your forehead or sides of the head. You may also feel them at the back of your head. Your scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles may also be tender or sore.
Where are pregnancy headaches located?
Migraine-like headaches are common during early pregnancy. You might get throbbing, painful headaches on one side of your head. You may also have other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity.
Where are sinus headaches located?
Sinus headaches usually cause pain or pressure around your forehead, near your nose and eyes, across your cheeks, or in your upper teeth. You may also have congestion, thick mucus or phlegm coming from your nose, or a fever.