Any pain in your head can be a real pain in the ass. But why does your head hurt on just one side, behind your eyes, or near your neck in the first place?
Headaches are generally located in the front of the head and temples, or on the side on the head. But the location of your headache can actually tip you off on the cause of that persistent and annoying pain.
Here’s what the location of your headache may be trying to tell you and how to tell that headache byeee.
The World Health Organization reports that 1 out of every 20 people around the globe get headaches almost every 👏 single 👏 day. Oof.
Headaches and their causes basically fit into one of two categories:
- Primary headaches. Caused by changes to nerves, blood vessels, and chemicals in the brain — totally unrelated to any underlying conditions.
- Secondary headaches. Caused by a condition, like a head injury or an infection.
The secret to figuring out which type you have and how to treat it is by tracking your symptoms. A good place to start your detective work is with your headache’s region.
|Headache/Location||Top of head||Forehead||Back of head||One side of head||Both sides of head||Neck||Behind the eye||Sinuses||Jaw|
Here are some of the causes behind common headache hangouts.
One side of the head (or alternating)
Migraine pain often feels like a deep pressure within the head with one side throbbing. It is also possible to feel nauseous or be sensitive to light and sound.
This notorious headache monster is a savage that can last for days. Women are three times more likely to develop these than men. Those with depression or an anxiety disorder show an increased risk as well.
Got a bun in the oven? Pregnancy may be the culprit of that headache that starts on one side of your head. Your estrogen levels rise during pregnancy and stay that way throughout the duration, these hormonal changes can lead to headaches and migraine.
If you are prone to migraines, pregnancy may also improve or make your migraine attacks disappear.
If Aunt Flo is in town, this unwanted visit can prompt a one-sided, throbbing in your head. You might also feel nauseous and move into migraine territory and become sensitive to bright light and sounds.
Menstruation also affects estrogen levels, which can give you a nasty hormone headache. The estrogen drop that happens just before your period may be to blame. Believe it or not, there are a few different types of these headaches (oh, joy).
Hormonal headaches also double down for women who already experience migraine. In fact, 60 percent of women who experience migraine symptoms also experience menstrual migraine (sorry, sis). Women with migraine typically report headaches before or during their period.
Both sides of the head
If you’ve been throwing weight around the gym, or around the bedroom, and have a pounding headache on the sides of your head, you may be experiencing an exertion headache. This type of headache can be brought on by intense physical activities, causing that throbbing sensation.
Drink too much or too little caffeine, and you’ve got a headache on your hands. When you cut out caffeine, you’re withdrawing it from your routine, which can change your brain chemistry and trigger a headache.
Hypertension associated headaches
Severe uncontrolled hypertension, often called malignant hypertension, can contribute to headaches, although high blood pressure is not a common cause of headaches.
Hypertension headaches are a very serious headache that happen when your blood pressure is severely high. If both sides of your head hurts and is accompanied by the following symptoms, this a warning bell to get to your doc ASAP:
- numbness or tingling
- vision changes
- nose bleeds
- worsens with activity
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
Some of the medications used to treat hypertension can cause headaches as a side effect, but not because of their effects on blood pressure.
In rare situations, hypertension can lead to bleeding of a blood vessel in the brain, which is a medical emergency. That may cause seizures and loss of consciousness to occur quickly after the headache starts.
On the other hand, low blood pressure (aka hypotension) from common problems like dehydration or even blood loss due to menstruation, can commonly cause headaches, along with lightheadedness.
Post-traumatic stress headaches
Those who’ve experienced post-traumatic stress have an increased risk for headaches. Sometimes these happen after emotional trauma or head injury. In fact, headaches are the most common complaint after a brain injury.
It can also be due to sleep disturbance, anxiety, and depression.
It’s believed that these headaches are related to the release of specific chemicals. Both sides of your head will hurt (it also feels like a tension-type or migraine headache). Sometimes just one side will hurt if the headache goes into migraine territory.
Post-traumatic stress headaches will also be joined by other symptoms like:
- light/sound sensitivity
- worsens with normal activity
- poor concentration
- memory problems
- mood and personality changes like nervousness and depression
Behind the eye
Cluster headaches are typically felt behind or around the eye. They can also spread to the forehead, neck, nose, temples, teeth, or even shoulders on the same side.
While the cause is unknown, men are twice as likely to have cluster headaches than women.
Cluster headaches can be even more intense than a migraine attack, and they can show up as often as eight times a day during a cluster period (which can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months or more).
They’re also sneaky and can appear to have gone away for months or even years only to show up again later. They also love to arrive a couple of hours after you’ve gone to sleep.
Sinus headaches happen when sinus passages (around your eyes, cheeks, forehead, and nose) become congested. Usually, this happens when you experience seasonal allergies or you are sick.
You may also feel sinus headaches in every other headache region, but it will always be prominent in the sinus region near your eyes.
It’s easy to get sinus headaches confused with migraine attacks. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reported that 90 percent of people who visit their doctor for a sinus headache learn that they’re actually experiencing migraine instead.
These headaches are treated differently, so checking in with your doc is a good move to find out which one you’re experiencing.
Sinus headaches can also be a symptom of sinusitis, an ongoing sinus condition. Before you start treatment call your doc to narrow down what’s going on.
Forehead and/ or neck
Tension headaches usually feel like a band is squeezing your head, with the pressure toward the forehead. It’s common to also feel tension headaches behind the eyes and near the neck. Stress is the most common trigger for tension headaches.
For most, tension headaches are sporadic — happening maybe a couple of times a month — but for others, they can be chronic.
The Cleveland Clinic reports that about 3 percent of the U.S. population have chronic tension headaches. Women are also twice as likely to experience chronic tension headaches than men.
Your ex isn’t the only one on the rebound. These dull, tension-like headaches can sometimes be just as painful as a migraine and usually occur on the front of the head in the forehead area, but they can also occur along the neck and temples.
Rebound headaches are often brought on by overusing meds, typically over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Although you may be taking an OTC pain reliever for a headache, using these too often may end up giving you more headaches than they relieve.
If you aren’t taking OTC meds, rebound headaches can also be brought on by:
- not enough sleep
- certain foods and drinks
If you have pain near the tops of your jaw (near the temples, too) this could be from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain.
The TMJ is a joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. If you have a jaw injury that affects the TMJ, or were just born with a structural problem there, you can get headaches from the muscles tightening.
Arthritis or grinding and clenching your teeth can also lead to TMJ pain.
If you want to treat your migraine symptoms at home, you can try the following:
- Take OTC migraine meds.
- Rest in a quiet, dark space.
- Massage your scalp or temples.
- Apply cold compresses to the back of your neck or forehead.
- Try herbal remedies like ginger.
Your doctor may be able to help you manage migraine. Treatment plans depend on a few variables like your age, the type of migraine symptoms you experience, the frequency and severity as well as other medications you may already be taking.
A doctor can prescribe you migraine pain medication like sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt), or rizatriptan (Axert).
A doctor can also subscribe you migraine prevention medications like:
Post-traumatic stress headache treatment
If you’ve had a brain injury or other post-traumatic stress that could be the root cause of your headaches, you will need to visit your doctor. A doctor and/or therapist can help you identify emotional triggers or suggest treatment plans to help brain injury-related headaches.
Your doctor may suggest medication like:
Tension headache treatment
If you’re getting tension headaches, work on your posture and lessening eye strain (getting too much screen time?) to help relax those muscles around the neck and head.
Stay hydrated, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Also cut out things like alcohol, smoking, or caffeine if you find that may be causing tension headaches.
Relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga may also help ease muscle tension. Of course, OTC pain relievers can also help you find relief in the moment and at-home migraine treatments like cold compresses may help.
Your doctor may suggest biofeedback relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), stress management classes, or acupuncture.
Cluster headache treatment
Cluster headaches may be brought on by lifestyle, weather, and diet. Cutting out alcohol, smoking, or food with nitrates (i.e., bacon, hot dogs, lunch meat) may help. You can also take an OTC pain reliever.
Treatment by a medical professional is typically a two-step approach.
1. Stop or control a current attack. Through a high-dose oxygen mask for up to 20 minutes, or prescription nasal spray like sumatriptan to help ease the pain.
2. Prevent future attacks. With daily medication like Verapamil (relaxes blood vessels), Prednisone (reduces inflammation), or anti-seizure meds.
Your doctor will know which is best for you.
Sinus headache treatment
If your sinus headache is from allergies, avoiding known allergens and adding some aerobic exercise may help your sinus headaches. You can also try some tried-and-true home methods for congestion like:
- using a humidifier
- spraying saline solution to clean the congested area
- breathing in steam
- applying a warm washcloth to the affected area for relief and drainage
- gently pressing on pressure points to loosen blockages from jammed mucus in your sinuses (begin with the bridge of your nose between your eyes, then tap or apply constant pressure for around 1 minute).
- OTC sinus headache medicine
If that’s not enough your doc may prescribe you antihistamines, mucolytics (clears out your mucus), or decongestants.
Antibiotics aren’t needed unless you experience complications from sinusitis affected by a bacterial infection, but if your sinus headache is coupled with severe sinus pain, call your doctor.
Pregnancy headache treatment
You’ll want to have a chat with your doctor about different medication and therapy options for pregnancy headaches, since many may be harmful to your growing baby (even OTC pain meds aren’t safe).
You can, of course, test out safe home remedies for headaches like:
- resting in a dark, quiet room
- staying hydrated
- icing the pain
- breathing exercises
Period headache treatment
Techniques for treating menstrual headaches are similar to treating regular migraine symptoms:
- ice (apply it to the painful spots, first wrapping the ice in a towel to avoid burn or irritation)
- relaxation activities like yoga, acupuncture, etc.
- OTC anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen
A doctor can prescribe medications like triptans. These block pain signals in the brain, and can relieve headache pain in a couple of hours. Your doc may also suggest a NSAIDS/triptan combo, or other prescription pain meds.
Caffeine headache treatment
Caffeine headaches can last for a fews days and typically be treated at home. Try typical headache treatments like:
- taking OTC medication like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin
- applying ice packs or cold compresses
- staying hydrated
Rebound headache treatment
These are unfortunately progressive, which means they can get worse until the appropriate treatment is in place.
Over time, with repeated physical activity, these headaches could become longer. It’s best to see a doctor to rule out any underlying condition behind these headaches.
Typically, stopping the meds that may be causing the rebounds to occur or at least lowering the dosage, along with preventative medication from your doctor can help you manage these headaches. Sometimes, they may get worse before they get better.
Hypertension headache treatment
If you suspect you’re experiencing hypertension headaches you need to visit your doctor for treatment.
These headaches typically disappear once the blood pressure is under better management (lifestyle changes and medication) and shouldn’t come back as long as high blood pressure continues to be controlled properly.
TMJ headache treatment
More research is needed to nail down a perfect treatment plan for TMJ headaches, but you can get short-term relief from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory meds. You can also try some helpful home remedies like:
- icing your jaw
- jaw exercises
- avoid moving your jaw in certain ways (e.i., clenching your jaws, yawning too wide, eating tough or chewy foods, and chewing gum)
If your suspected headache cause hasn’t already sent you to the doctor, there are other signs it’s time to seek medical help for your headache.
If your headache lasts more than 2 days and the pain only increases, or you get headaches 15 days or more during a month (over a 3 month period), chat with your doctor.
If your headache comes with any of these severe symptoms, get to your doc ASAP:
- slurred speech
- stiff neck
- weakness in arm or leg
- facial numbness
- paralysis in any part of your body or vision loss
- fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
Identifying your headache based on location and other symptoms can be helpful in learning the cause of your headaches.
OTC medications, home remedies, and lifestyle adjustments like staying hydrated may help you manage your headaches. If your headache points to an underlying health condition, you’ll want to visit your doctor for treatment rather than try at-home methods.
If headaches persist or you can’t find relief from home remedies, talk with your doctor about your options.