Reasons for a Sharp Pain in The Head that are EASY to Ignore (2022)

A sharp pain in the head is a severe type of headache that feels like a stabbing ache in your head. Although most causes of the sharp shooting pain in the head are nothing to worry about, the severe pain can affect your daily activities and cause a lot of discomfort. Common reasons for a sharp pain in your head are migraines, ice pick headaches, irritation to nerves in your head, drinking too much alcohol, and even eating something cold can cause a shooting pain in your head.

However, on rare occasions, the sharp pain in the head may be a sign of a more serious medical condition. This is especially true if it is accompanied by other symptoms. For example, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), a brain tumor, or stroke can all cause a severe headache with sharp head pains and are usually accompanied by other symptoms. At the end of the article, you will learn when you should see a doctor if you frequently have sharp headaches.

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Before looking at the various reasons of a sharp pain in the head, let’s look to see what happens in the brain that causes bad, severe headaches.

Why Do You Get Sharp Pains in the Head?

The brain tissue itself can’t experience pain because it doesn’t contain any nerves. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a series of nerves in your head react to sensations from your scalp, blood vessels around your skull, the brain’s lining, and the face (mouth, neck, ears, eyes, and throat).1

These nerves can react to various triggers like stress, medicines, or certain foods and cause a sharp painful sensation in your head and temples. Because these nerves are connected with other organs of your body, it explains why severe headaches are sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and trouble concentrating.

Causes of Sharp Pains in the Head

Depending on the cause of your severe headache, you can feel stabbing shooting pains anywhere in your head. However, some conditions cause pain at the back of your head or on just the left side or right side of your head. Usually, knowing what triggers headaches and what the accompanying symptoms are can help you diagnose the cause of pain.

Migraine

Migraines can cause a severe throbbing pulsating pain on just one side of the head. Along with the severe pain, you may also have nausea, vomiting, tingling in the head and sensitivity to light or sound. The sharp pain in the head can get worse by physical activity, moving, or sneezing.

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According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the severe headache is caused by abnormal brain activity which affects the nerves and blood vessels in the lining of your brain.1

Doctors from the National Health Service in the United Kingdom say that there are 2 types of migraine that cause severe headaches:2

  • A migraine with aura. The severe headache is preceded by flashing lights, blind spots, tingling in your hand or face, or dizziness.
  • A migraine without aura. The migraine isn’t preceded by any vision changes or other neurological symptoms. The sudden, sharp pain on one side of the head starts suddenly without any warning.

Some migraine attacks can be caused by a specific trigger or happen at regular times. For example, some women have regular migraines just before their period. Sometimes, stress, tiredness or certain foods can trigger a migraine. A hormonal imbalance can be the reason for suffering from migraines before your period.

If you suffer from frequent sharp pains in your head, it could be due to a nutritional deficiency that has been linked to frequent migraines.

There are many natural ways to prevent and ease the throbbing pain of a migraine. Some essential oils might effective at providing migraine relief. You could try putting some essential oils like peppermint, lavender, or chamomile in a diffuser to inhale the vapor and get rid of your agonizing headache fast.

One of my top 10 tips to relieve migraines naturally is to drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated. A study published in the European Journal f Neurology found that increasing water intake can help to prevent headaches. They also found that drinking more water can help to reduce the length and intensity of migraines.3

Ice pick headaches

If you have sharp stabbing pains in your head that last a few seconds, you may suffer from ice pick headaches. These shooting headaches usually only affect one side of the head and give you severe jolts behind one of your eyes.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD says that ice pick headaches are not caused by a serious medical condition. Certain conditions like stress, bright lights or sudden movements can trigger the stabbing pains. He recommends keeping a headache diary to help identify triggers so that you can prevent further headache attacks.4

If you experience brief sharp shooting head pains, it is important to get them checked out by a doctor first so that they can rule out any serious medical condition.

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Eating something cold

Eating cold food like ice cream, cold drinks with ice, or milkshakes ice can cause a sudden, sharp head pain. This type of brief intense head pain is also called “brain freeze” or an “ice cream headache.” The sharp pain can be felt at the front of your head and can affect both sides.

The reason for the sharp pain in the head after eating something cold is possibly due to the cold affecting blood vessels your head. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic explain that the freezing cold food or drink causes the blood vessels to constrict. The sharp pain happens when the blood vessels relax and blood continues to flow normally.5

The sharp stabbing head pains associated with eating something cold usually fade away very quickly. However, if you frequently suffer from “ice cream headaches,” you should try drinking something warmer than whatever caused the headache and drink slowly.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of your head around one of your eyes. Cluster headaches are caused by a nerve that is responsible for pain in your face. These types of severe headaches can come on very suddenly and the pain can be more intense than a migraine attack. Some people only have one severe attack a year whereas others experience multiple stabbing headaches a day.

Dr. Richard Senelick on WebMD says that the sharp pain in the head behind your eye can spread to other areas of your face and make your scalp tender. You may also feel your blood pulsing inside your head. The cluster headaches tend to occur at regular times and therefore are sometimes called “alarm clock headaches.”6

Cluster headaches don’t cause nausea or vomiting. Along with the sharp pains in your head, you may also experience a swollen or drooping eye, eye redness, runny nose, increased sensitivity to light or sweating. Keeping a “headache diary” can help to identify triggers to help prevent cluster headache attacks in the future.

Tension headaches

A tension headache (often called stress headaches) is the most common type of headache. Tension headaches cause mild to intense pain, tightness, or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. It may be felt like a clamp squeezing the skull.

Severe tension headaches can cause severe pains in your head. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, tension headaches are rarely severe.7

Occipital neuralgia

If the severe stabbing pain is felt at the back of your head, it could be a symptom of occipital neuralgia. The head pain is caused by irritation of the occipital nerves that run from the top of your neck to the back of your head.

Neurologist, Dr. Danette C. Taylor says that some of the causes of occipital neuralgia are an injury to the neck or back of the head, arthritis, tight neck muscles, or spinal damage. Sometimes, diabetes can cause occipital neuralgia because of infection or inflammation to blood vessels in the back of the neck.8

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To help get rid of the pain caused by occipital neuralgia, Dr. Taylor recommends using a heat pack, getting you a neck massage, having a course of physical therapy, and getting plenty of rest. If the pain is very severe, you doctor may recommend treatments to block the nerve pain.

Severe hangover

One of the consequences of drinking too much alcohol is a severe hangover that causes an agonizing throbbing headache. Waking up in the morning with an alcohol hangover headache is one of the most common types of headache. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the pain can range from a mild dull ache to a severe stabbing pain in your head.

Researchers have found that it’s not just dehydration that causes alcohol-induced headaches. The journal PLoS One published a study showing that ethanol in alcohol causes an inflammatory response in the blood vessels in your head. This, together with dehydration, can cause severe headaches after consuming a lot of alcoholic beverages.9

The research also found that migraine sufferers are prone to more severe hangover headaches. Excessive alcohol use can damage your liver and many people are surprised at how long alcohol actually stays in their system.

Trigeminal neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia (TN), also calledtic douloureux, is a chronic pain condition caused by disorder of the nerves in your face. One of the symptoms of Trigeminal neuralgia is intense pain in your head. The most common type of pain that trigeminal neuralgia causes affects only one side of the face at a time. Doctors from WebMD say that the nerve pain can also affect your left or right side of your forehead, however, sometimes, the pain can be felt on both sides of your head.10

Trigeminal neuralgia can be triggered very easily by something as simple as brushing your teeth, washing your face or eating. The facial and head pain that trigeminal neuralgia causes can affect your daily activities and is usually managed by medication.11

Encephalitis

Serious cases of encephalitis can cause very severe headaches along with nausea, vomiting, speech problems, and hearing problems. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection or autoimmune response in the body. A common cause of encephalitis is a tick bite which infects a person causing swelling in the brain.

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Dr. Tim Kenny on Patient.info says that encephalitis can also be caused by the herpes simplex virus, chickenpox, virus, and the flu. The common encephalitis symptoms are headaches, fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. If left untreated, you may develop severe head pains.12

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With the proper treatment, most people recover from encephalitis with no problems. However, encephalitis can result in brain damage if you don’t get prompt treatment. If you notice any of the above symptoms, you should seek prompt medical advice.

Stroke

One of the less well-known signs of a stroke is a severe headache. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off and can leave a person paralyzed or with brain damage. To help recognize the first signs of stroke, doctors use the acronym F.A.S.T. Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time to act fast.

The Stroke Association says that with the typical symptoms of stroke, a person can experience confusion, vision problems, loss of balance, and severe headaches.13

The Journal of Headache and Pain reported on one case of a woman who experienced stabbing headaches prior to suffering a stroke.14

There are many practical ways that you can lower your risk of stroke. Some of the best ways are to be physically active, control your weight, eat healthily, and take any medication that you have been prescribed.

Brain aneurysm

A sudden, severe sharp pain in your head could be the first sign of a brain aneurysm. A brain aneurysm can quickly become a life-threatening condition and needs prompt medical attention. This is because the sharp pain in the head is caused by a leaking or ruptured blood vessel around the lining of the brain.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that along with a severe headache, a brain aneurysm will cause a stiff neck, nausea, drooping eyelid, confusion, and loss of consciousness. If you experience any of those symptoms along with severe shooting head pain, you should call your doctor immediately.15

Brain tumor

A brain tumor can cause pressure on the nerves and blood vessels inside your skull. Brain tumors cause headaches and seizures and can sometimes result in severe headaches, especially in the morning. These head pains could be made worse by coughing, sneezing, or exercising. It is important to note that Cancer Research UK says that if a severe headache is your only symptom, it is very unlikely that you have a brain tumor.16

Sharp Pain in Head – When to See a Doctor

Most headaches, even sharp pains in your head, aren’t a symptom of a serious medical condition. Usually, the sharp, stabbing pains are caused by a trigger or some event that affects the blood vessels and nerves in your head.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that you should see a doctor for severe headaches if they are accompanied by any of the following conditions:1

  • A stiff neck that accompanies a sudden, severe headache.
  • You have nausea, vomiting, or a fever and severe head pains that aren’t related to another illness.
  • You have stabbing head pains after a head injury.
  • You experience seizures, shortness of breath, loss of sensations or weakness in any part of your body.
  • You have a drooping eye or eyelid with a severe headache.
  • You are over the age of 50 and start getting severe, stabbing pains in your head.

Read these related articles:

(Video) 10 Mental Illness Signs You Should Not Ignore

  • This Common Nutritional Deficiency Can Cause Migraine Headaches
  • Top 15 Causes of Headaches and How to Get Rid of Them Naturally
  • Pain in the Back of Head – Causes and Treatments
  • Headache Above or Behind Left Eye: Causes and Treatments

Article Sources:

  1. NINDS. Headache. Hope through research.
  2. NHS. Migraine.
  3. Eur J Neurol. 2005 Sep;12(9):715-8.
  4. WebMD. Ice pick headaches.
  5. MayoClinic. Ice cream headaches.
  6. WebMD. Cluster headaches.
  7. ClevelandClinic. Tension headaches.
  8. MedicineNet. Occipital neuralgia.
  9. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15963.
  10. WebMD. Facial pain and trigeminal neuralgia.
  11. NHS. Trigeminal neuralgia.
  12. Patient. Encephalitis.
  13. StrokeAssociation. More stroke warning signs and symptoms.
  14. J Headache Pain. 2011 Jun; 12(3): 373–375.
  15. CancerResearchUK. Brain tumour.
  16. MayoClinic. Brain aneurysm.

FAQs

What causes random sharp pain in head? ›

Primary headache: People with primary ice pick headaches experience head pain without other symptoms. There isn't an underlying condition causing the pain. Secondary headache: A health condition, such as shingles, meningioma (brain tumor) or multiple sclerosis, causes the ice pick headache along with other symptoms.

When should I be concerned about a sharp pain in my head? ›

Intense, sudden headaches (often called thunderclap headaches) are not always serious, but they can be a sign of a potentially life-threatening condition. A sudden and intense headache can indicate an aneurysm or bleeding in the brain. Additional signs of this are blurred vision, loss of consciousness, and seizures.

What does a brain tumor headache feel like? ›

They are often described as dull, "pressure-type" headaches, though some patients also experience sharp or "stabbing" pain. They can be localized to a specific area or generalized. They can be made worse with coughing, sneezing or straining.

Why does my head feel like it's being stabbed? ›

An ice pick headache is a type of headache marked by brief jolts of pain. It most commonly affects the front and sides of the head. Doctors sometimes refer to this condition as idiopathic stabbing headache, primary stabbing headache (PSH), or ophthalmodynia periodica.

Can anxiety cause stabbing pains in head? ›

Stress and anxiety caused sharp shooting pains in the head, neck, and face are not indications of a stroke or aneurysm. They are simply the consequences of elevated stress and how the body responds to that elevated stress. Therefore, these types of symptoms needn't be a cause for concern.

What does a stroke headache feel like? ›

People will often describe a stroke headache as the "worst of my life." Or they might say that it appeared like a "thunderclap"—a very severe headache that comes on within seconds or minutes. The pain associated with a stroke headache generally doesn't throb or develop gradually like a migraine.

What does an aneurysm headache feel like? ›

Doctors often describe the head pain caused by a burst aneurysm as a "thunderclap." The pain comes on in an instant, and it's very intense. It will feel like the worst headache of your life. A migraine, on the other hand, tends to come on gradually.

Does brain aneurysm pain come and go? ›

People with a ruptured brain aneurysm often say the headache is the worst headache of their lives. The severe headache comes on suddenly and lasts for hours to days.

What is usually the first symptom of a brain tumor? ›

Usually, the first sign of a brain tumor is a headache, generally in conjunction with other symptoms.

What were your first signs of a brain tumor? ›

Some of the more common signs and symptoms caused by brain tumors include the following:
  • Headaches.
  • Seizures.
  • Difficulty thinking, speaking, or finding words.
  • Changes in personality or behavior.
  • Weakness, numbness, or loss of movement in one part or one side of the body.
  • Difficulty with balance or dizziness.

How do I know if my headache is serious? ›

Your headache pain may be serious if you have:
  1. sudden, very intense headache pain (thunderclap headache)
  2. severe or sharp headache pain for the first time.
  3. a stiff neck and fever.
  4. a fever higher than 102 to 104°F.
  5. nausea and vomiting.
  6. fainting.
  7. dizziness or loss of balance.
  8. pain that wakes you from sleep.

What causes a sharp shocking pain to right side of head? ›

Overview. Trigeminal neuralgia (tic douloureux) is a disorder of a nerve at the side of the head, called the trigeminal nerve. This condition causes intense, stabbing or electric shock-like pain in the lips, eyes, nose, scalp, forehead and jaw. Although trigeminal neuralgia is not fatal, it is extremely painful.

How do you treat primary stabbing headaches? ›

Fortunately, a primary stabbing headache typically lasts only seconds to a minute or so. They are more common in patients with migraines and often respond to the prescription anti-inflammatory medication indomethacin or the hormonal food supplement melatonin.

What does a thunderclap headache feel like? ›

A thunderclap headache feels like a severe headache from nowhere with an overwhelming level of headache pain. It reaches its maximum intensity within 1 minute from onset. Direct symptoms of a thunderclap headache include: Sudden onset headache.

Can stress cause shooting pains? ›

Anxiety shooting pains may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself. Anxiety shooting pains can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur 'out of the blue' and for no apparent reason.

What causes pain that feels like electric shocks? ›

Arachnoiditis most commonly affects the nerves connecting to your lower back and legs (lumbar spine). Arachnoiditis can cause many symptoms, including: Headaches. Severe shooting pain that can be similar to an electric shock sensation.

What is a hypertension headache? ›

What can a hypertension headache feel like? Headaches triggered by high blood pressure typically cause a pulsing sensation that's felt all over the head rather than on just one side. If your headache is severe, happens suddenly, or is accompanied by chest pain or shortness of breath, get immediate medical attention.

What are the 5 warning signs of a stroke in a woman? ›

Call 9-1-1 immediately if any of these signs of stroke appear: Numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg; Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech; Trouble seeing in one or both eyes; Trouble walking, dizziness, or problems with balance; severe headache with no known cause.

How do you tell if you've had a mini stroke? ›

Symptoms
  1. Weakness, numbness or paralysis in the face, arm or leg, typically on one side of the body.
  2. Slurred or garbled speech or difficulty understanding others.
  3. Blindness in one or both eyes or double vision.
  4. Vertigo or loss of balance or coordination.
26 Mar 2022

What are the symptoms of a silent stroke? ›

Silent Stroke Symptoms
  • Sudden lack of balance.
  • Temporary loss of basic muscle movement (bladder included)
  • Slight memory loss.
  • Sudden changes in mood or personality.
  • Issues with cognitive skills and ability.

Are there warning signs before an aneurysm? ›

In addition to a severe headache, common signs and symptoms of a ruptured aneurysm include: Nausea and vomiting. Stiff neck. Blurred or double vision.

Can you have a brain bleed and not know it? ›

There may be no warning signs of a bleed on the brain. For example, it could happen after someone falls and hits their head. If there is a weakness in the blood vessel wall, it can bulge or swell, which is known as an aneurysm. Aneurysms can rupture suddenly without warning, and cause a bleed on the brain.

What part of head hurts with aneurysm? ›

Neck pain and/or stiffness in the neck is a common complaint of people who have ruptured brain aneurysms as blood accumulates in the spinal fluid around the base of the brain and can irritate the area.

How do I know if I'm having an aneurysm? ›

Symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm usually begin with a sudden agonising headache. It's been likened to being hit on the head, resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before. Other symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm also tend to come on suddenly and may include: feeling or being sick.

How long can you have an aneurysm and not know it? ›

An unruptured brain aneurysm may cause zero symptoms. People can live with them for years before detection.

How do I know if my headache is an aneurysm? ›

Important Differences Between Migraine and Aneurysm Symptoms

The pain from a ruptured brain aneurysm is often described as the worst headache of a person's life. The pain comes on more suddenly and is more severe than any previous headaches or migraines. In contrast, migraine headaches usually come on gradually.

What does an aneurysm headache feel like? ›

Doctors often describe the head pain caused by a burst aneurysm as a "thunderclap." The pain comes on in an instant, and it's very intense. It will feel like the worst headache of your life. A migraine, on the other hand, tends to come on gradually.

What causes a sharp shocking pain to right side of head? ›

Overview. Trigeminal neuralgia (tic douloureux) is a disorder of a nerve at the side of the head, called the trigeminal nerve. This condition causes intense, stabbing or electric shock-like pain in the lips, eyes, nose, scalp, forehead and jaw. Although trigeminal neuralgia is not fatal, it is extremely painful.

Does brain aneurysm pain come and go? ›

People with a ruptured brain aneurysm often say the headache is the worst headache of their lives. The severe headache comes on suddenly and lasts for hours to days.

What does a stroke headache feel like? ›

People will often describe a stroke headache as the "worst of my life." Or they might say that it appeared like a "thunderclap"—a very severe headache that comes on within seconds or minutes. The pain associated with a stroke headache generally doesn't throb or develop gradually like a migraine.

Are there warning signs before an aneurysm? ›

In addition to a severe headache, common signs and symptoms of a ruptured aneurysm include: Nausea and vomiting. Stiff neck. Blurred or double vision.

Can you have a brain bleed and not know it? ›

There may be no warning signs of a bleed on the brain. For example, it could happen after someone falls and hits their head. If there is a weakness in the blood vessel wall, it can bulge or swell, which is known as an aneurysm. Aneurysms can rupture suddenly without warning, and cause a bleed on the brain.

What part of head hurts with aneurysm? ›

Neck pain and/or stiffness in the neck is a common complaint of people who have ruptured brain aneurysms as blood accumulates in the spinal fluid around the base of the brain and can irritate the area.

What causes shooting pain that feels like electric shocks? ›

Neuralgia is a sharp, shocking pain that follows the path of a nerve and is due to irritation or damage to the nerve. Common neuralgias include: Postherpetic neuralgia (pain that continues after a bout of shingles) Trigeminal neuralgia (stabbing or electric-shock-like pain in parts of the face)

How do you treat primary stabbing headaches? ›

Fortunately, a primary stabbing headache typically lasts only seconds to a minute or so. They are more common in patients with migraines and often respond to the prescription anti-inflammatory medication indomethacin or the hormonal food supplement melatonin.

Why do I get sharp pains on the left side of my head? ›

A headache on the left side may result from migraine, vasculitis, cluster headaches, or other types. Often, a person can treat a headache at home with over-the-counter remedies and rest. However, if headaches are severe, persistent, or otherwise concerning, contact a healthcare professional.

How do I know if I'm having an aneurysm? ›

Symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm usually begin with a sudden agonising headache. It's been likened to being hit on the head, resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before. Other symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm also tend to come on suddenly and may include: feeling or being sick.

How long can you have an aneurysm and not know it? ›

An unruptured brain aneurysm may cause zero symptoms. People can live with them for years before detection.

What is a thunderclap headache? ›

Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, striking suddenly like a clap of thunder. The pain of these severe headaches peaks within 60 seconds. Thunderclap headaches are uncommon, but they can warn of potentially life-threatening conditions — usually having to do with bleeding in and around the brain.

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