Throbbing headaches: symptoms, causes and treatment

Throbbing headaches cause a pulsing or rhythmic pounding sensation all over the head or part of the head. Their intensity varies from mild to severe. Usually they arise from a primary headache disorder such as migraine or a secondary headache disorder such as caffeine withdrawal or giant cell arteritis (an inflammatory disease of the blood vessels).

Rarely, a throbbing headache can be a sign of a life-threatening condition, such as a stroke (a blocked blood vessel or bleeding in the brain) or a tear in a blood vessel in the neck.

This article focuses on common symptoms, causes, and treatment for a throbbing headache. It also provides insight into when to seek medical attention for your headache.

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Symptoms of a throbbing headache

The symptoms that may accompany a throbbing headache depend on the cause of the headache.

The following are examples of such possible symptoms:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sound or smell
  • Restlessness
  • Cranial autonomic symptoms (eg, flushing, redness and tearing of the eyes, and stuffy nose)
  • Mood or thought disorders (eg, anxiety or trouble concentrating)
  • Scalp sensitivity
  • Jaw claudication (pain when chewing)

Causes of a throbbing headache

Primary headaches exist on their own, while secondary headaches are caused by an underlying health issue, such as illness or drug withdrawal.

Primary headache disorders that can cause throbbing headaches include:

  • Migraine headache usually occur on one side of the head, are often aggravated by movement, and may be preceded by an aura (reversible visual or sensory disturbances).
  • Cluster headaches are less likely than migraines to cause throbbing pain. If they do, the pain is usually severe and is centered in or around the eye or the temple on one side of the head.

Tension type headaches

Tension headaches are common primary headaches that cause dull, non-throbbing pain on both sides of the head.

Several secondary headaches can cause throbbing headaches.

Three common examples are:

  • Caffeine withdrawal headaches usually appear on both sides of the head and develop within 24 hours of regular caffeine consumption (about two cups of coffee a day for more than two weeks).
  • Hangover headache tend to occur on both sides of the head, especially on the forehead and/or temples. They can develop within 12 hours of drinking alcohol.
  • Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA) is a form of vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) that affects large and medium-sized arteries in the head and neck. It is usually only seen in adults over the age of 50. The throbbing headache of the GCA is classically felt on both temples.

How to treat a throbbing headache

Treatment for a throbbing headache depends on the underlying diagnosis.

Primary headaches

A sweet migraine headache can usually be alleviated with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Aleve (naproxen sodium) or Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen). More severe or persistent migraines may require a triptan.

What is a triptan?

Triptans are prescription medications that interrupt migraines by binding to specific serotonin (a brain chemical) docking sites. They are available in unique formulations including pills, tablets that dissolve on the tongue, nasal sprays and injections.

Lifestyle habits play an important role in migraine management. In particular, avoiding triggers (eg, strong smells, too much or too little sleep, and hunger) is paramount in most patients’ migraine treatment plans.

Cluster headaches are treated by inhaling oxygen or by injecting or inhaling a triptan such as Imitrex (sumatriptan). Quitting smoking and avoiding heavy alcohol consumption are also generally advised.

Secondary headaches

Hangover headache resolve on their own within 72 hours. In the meantime, they can be soothed with a combination of ibuprofen, rest, and drinking plenty of fluids.

Avoid Tylenol

It is important to avoid taking Tylenol (acetaminophen) during or after drinking alcohol to prevent damage to your liver.

A caffeine withdrawal headaches will also resolve on its own, but it can take up to a week without caffeine.

If you think you have a caffeine-related headache, it’s probably best to go ahead and drink a cup of coffee (or something else that equals about 100 milligrams of caffeine). This should relieve your headache in less than an hour.

giant cell arteritis is treated with high doses of corticosteroids, which are powerful anti-inflammatories.

Complications associated with a throbbing headache

Complications are health problems that can arise as a result of a headache disorder.

For example, migraine is associated with the following rare complications:

Are there tests to diagnose the cause of a throbbing headache?

More migraine are diagnosed with a medical history and neurological examination. Imaging or other diagnostic tests are usually not needed.

If your exam is abnormal or your healthcare provider suspects cluster headachemagnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain will be performed.

The diagnosis of a hangover Where caffeine withdrawal headaches usually only requires a careful medical history.

The diagnosis of giant cell arteritis usually involves the following tests:

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (sedation rate): This blood test is a marker of inflammation.
  • Temporal artery biopsy: A small sample of tissue from the artery in your temple is removed and examined under a microscope

When to See a Health Care Provider

Most throbbing headaches are nothing to worry about. However, sometimes a throbbing headache is the only or first sign of something serious.

Be sure to consult a health care provider in the following situations:

  • Your headache pattern changes (for example, headaches happen more often).
  • You have a headache and are pregnant, have just given birth, or have a history of cancer or a weakened immune system.
  • You are 65 years or older and you suffer from a headache different from previous headaches.
  • Your headache is triggered by sneezing, coughing, or exercising.
  • You suffer from rebound headaches from taking painkillers on a regular basis.

Consult an emergency doctor

Go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately if:

  • You have a sudden headache that becomes severe within seconds or minutes.
  • You have headaches and fever/stiff neck, painful red eyes, seizures, fainting or symptoms of stroke.
  • You develop a headache after a blow or injury to the head.

Summary

A throbbing headache feels like a throbbing sensation in your brain and has many potential causes, including a migraine, a hangover, or a lack of caffeine. An inflammatory blood vessel disease called giant cell arteritis can cause throbbing headaches in older people.

Treatment for a throbbing headache depends on the underlying diagnosis and usually involves a combination of medications and lifestyle strategies.

A word from Verywell

If you suffer from throbbing headaches, cannot identify the underlying culprit or trigger, or have trouble controlling them, make an appointment with your healthcare provider or a specialist in headache.

Getting the right diagnosis is key to designing a headache treatment and prevention plan that is especially effective and safe for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are throbbing headaches a sign of COVID-19?

    Some people infected with COVID-19 report a throbbing headache. The headache is usually moderate to severe in intensity and is felt on both sides of the head, near the temples, forehead or around the eyes.

  • How long does a throbbing headache last?

    How long a throbbing headache lasts depends on its cause and whether or not it is treated. For example, an untreated migraine or hangover can last up to 72 hours. In the absence of caffeine, a caffeine deficiency headache can last up to a week.

  • How to treat a throbbing headache?

    Treatment for a throbbing headache depends on the underlying diagnosis. For example, migraines are often treated with an NSAID, such as ibuprofen, or a prescription drug called a triptan.

    A throbbing headache due to caffeine withdrawal can be relieved by consuming 100 milligrams of caffeine, which is equivalent to one cup of coffee.

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