Headaches come in several different forms, and recurring, sharp pains in the head can be among the most jarring and disruptive. Unfortunately, as annoying and distressing as headaches can be, they are not the easiest symptom to diagnose. There is a variety of potential underlying causes that range from the benign to the life-threatening. Being able to understand some of the nuances of head pain and the potential associated symptoms to watch for can help you better inform your doctor and hopefully arrive at the correct diagnoses.
When speaking to your doctor, it can help to be as specific as possible. Saying you have a sharp pain on the right or left side of the head can be descriptive and useful, but the more precise you can be in the description, the better the diagnoses will be. When describing a sharp pain in the head, make sure to specify if you mean something like:
- A knife-like pain, as if you are being stabbed in the head
- The headache is sudden and severe
- The headache is an intense, painful throbbing
- You are experiencing a shooting sensation in your head
You should also try and mention any activities you were doing when the pain occurred (take notes if you need to) as well as duration and location.
Possible Causes for Sharp Pain in the Head
Although they are more common among women, migraines can affect anyone. The severity of a migraine can vary from person to person, so what might be crippling for one individual could merely be annoying for another. Migraines tend to present with severe pain beginning around an eye or temple, and then migrate to the back of the head as a sort of pulsing sensation. Possible associated symptoms include nausea, runny nose, watering eyes, sensitivity to light, numbness or tingling, and visual disturbances (“auras”).
Ice Pick Headaches
As the name implies, this is a type of headache that features a sharp, stabbing pain in one region of the head or behind an ear. The pain can be sudden and frightening, but usually only lasts for up to 30 seconds. Ice pick headaches are usually a recurring problem and people will suffer sporadic attacks rather than prolonged bouts of migraines.
The sinuses are a series of linked cavities in the skull that are lined with mucosa tissue. Under certain conditions, like infection or congestion, the sinuses can become inflamed and build up blockages. This results in a sinus headache, which presents as an intense pain around the forehead, nose, eyes, upper mouth/teeth, or cheeks. The pain may also increase if you tilt forwards.
A cluster headache usually appears on one side of the head and tends to occur at a similar time each day. The name comes from how cluster headaches are known to strike repeatedly over several days before vanishing for weeks or months. Cluster headaches strike with a burning, sharp, persistent pain that peaks after a few minutes and can last for up to an hour and a half. Tearing or congestion may also appear. The ailment is found about four times as often in men, and is known to run in families.
Giant Cell Arteritis
Also known as “temporal arteritis”, this condition is a type of one-sided head pain that is caused by inflammation (“-itis”) of the inner lining of an artery in the head. Unfortunately, the cause of the condition isn’t known. What is known is that giant cell arteritis can produce sharp, one-sided head pain, jaw pain (especially when eating), general tenderness in the scalp, a low-grade fever, and sometimes interfere with vision. That last symptom is one of the more problematic since, if left untreated, giant cell arteritis can lead to blindness.
A stroke is basically the brain’s version of a heart attack. Something has caused blood flow to part of the brain to get blocked or severely restricted, which in turn causes the affected section to starve and die. In addition to intense, sudden pain around the affected region, strokes commonly come with symptoms like muscle weakness, numbness, slurring of speech, paralysis, visual disturbances, or death if left untreated.
Depending on size and specific location, a brain tumor can cause little to no symptoms. If one grows large enough, the pressure it exerts will end up causing sharp pains in the head. Other symptoms will depend on where in the brain the tumor has grown, but can include things like movement or speech difficulties, personality changes, muscle weakness, vision disturbances, and so on.
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Treating Sharp Pains in the Head
Given the different causes of headaches, there is no singular treatment. The treatment for a brain tumor (surgery, radiation therapy, etc.) is going to be dramatically different from the treatment for a stroke (clot-busting drugs, usually) or giant cell arteritis (corticosteroids). For headaches or migraines, the treatment options tend to be more limited and consist of minimizing aggravating factors and taking painkiller medication if it helps, which doesn’t always happen. More specific treatment options may be possible depending on individual circumstances, which is why it’s always important to talk to your doctor about these matters. They will be most familiar with your medical circumstances and personal needs and can help you find an effective treatment.
When to Seek Medical Attention
In addition to the more problematic causes outlined above, headaches can also be the result of many benign causes, so it is easy to mistake something serious for something mild or vice-versa. A few general rules of thumb:
- Any severe headache that suddenly appears without warning or discernable cause should be brought to your doctor’s attention and needs to be checked out
- Persistent or recurrent headaches that undergo a change in frequency, severity, or steadily worsen should warrant a consult with your doctor
- Headaches that accompany red eyes, physical injury, visual disturbances (but isn’t a migraine), or cognitive/personality changes deserve immediate medical attention