Causes of a Headache That Worsens When Your Head Moves & How to Find Relief

If you are experiencing an increasing headache when moving your head around, this may be due to a light sensitivity, stress, diet, or lifestyle changes. Other causes for headaches with movement include increasing head pressure, inflammation in your sinuses, or a side effect of medication. Read below for more information on associated symptoms, other causes, and treatment options.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 8 Possible Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Symptoms of a Headache that Gets Worse When Moving Your Head

Headaches are disruptive, and sometimes debilitating with a variety of causes [1]. Headaches that worsen when you move your head can interfere with work, productivity, or activities of daily living. A headache that worsens when the head moves can present with some main characteristics as well as other likely symptoms.

Common characteristics of a headache that worsens when your head moves

A headache can cause pain in any region of the head. Headaches can take on multiple qualities, including:

Common accompanying symptoms

Within this spectrum of symptoms, a headache that also worsens when the head moves can signal conditions ranging from life-threatening to more benign. Headaches that worsen when the head or body moves may also present with the following symptoms:

Take note of the type and quality of your headache symptoms to get the proper care. If you experience a headache that worsens when the head moves, see your physician promptly to discuss the appropriate treatment measures.

What Causes a Headache to Get Worse When Moving Your Head?

Though the specific cause of most headaches is not well understood, they often occur when there is an increase in activity or dysregulation of pain-sensitive structures in the head such as blood vessels, muscles, tissues surrounding the brain, and even teeth [1,2]. Headaches fit into two categories: primary and secondary. This distinction is important because primary and secondary headaches have different causes. Getting the right diagnosis from your physician is crucial to receiving the appropriate treatment and care.

Primary headache

A primary headache is a headache not due to another cause or underlying condition. Many times, these types of headaches are related to particular triggers such as the following.

  • Stress: Things in your life that are causing stress or lack of sleep can easily trigger headache symptoms that worsen when the head moves.
  • Diet: Beverages like caffeine and alcohol can trigger primary headaches. Moreover, dietary insufficiencies such as skipped meals or dehydration can also result in headaches that worsen upon movement.

Secondary headache

A secondary headache is a headache that is present because of another condition or underlying disease. Many conditions can cause headache symptoms.

  • Pressure: When an injury or medical condition causes pressure to increase inside the skull, severe headaches that worsen with movement can occur. Increased intracranial pressure (ICP) is a serious condition that, if left untreated, can spread to injure the spinal cord as well as the brain and its structures [4]. On the other hand, decreased intracranial pressure (intracranial hypotension) can also result in headaches that worsen with movement. This pressure change is often due to the leaking of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain or sometimes after a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) [3].
  • Inflammatory: Infections and inflammation of any of the structures in the head (sinuses, ear, nose, etc.) can result in secondary headaches that worsen with movement. These headaches worsen the most when moving the head/body forward. They often resolve once the underlying infection or inflammatory condition resolves.
  • Post-traumatic: Falls, injury, and other traumatic events that can result in concussions can also result in post-traumatic headaches. These headaches, sometimes called post-concussion syndrome, can last for weeks to months after the initial injury. These headaches may present with dizziness, loss of concentration or memory and worsening upon movement.
  • Medication-induced: If you already have headaches and take headache medication too often, your pain can recur more often. When headache medication backfires, the medical term is "rebound" or "medication-overuse" headache.

8 Possible Headache That Worsens When Head Moves Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced headache that worsens when head moves. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Tension headache (first onset)

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. It is pain or discomfort in the head and/or neck. It's often associated with muscle tightness in these areas. This condition can occur as little as once a year (infrequent) but as often as more than 15 days per month (chronic). The cause of tension-type headaches is not clear.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: new headache, nausea or vomiting, moderate headache, loss of appetite, mild headache

Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset): new headache

Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset): photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

New migraine

New, or new-onset, migraine means the person has never experienced a migraine headache before. A migraine is a one-sided headache that causes intense pain and throbbing due to blood vessels dilating in the brain.

The exact reason for new-onset migraine headache is not known, but a number of causes are being studied:

  • Pregnancy.
  • Soy isoflavone supplements, especially in men.
  • Use and overuse of certain medications.
  • Traumatic head injury.
  • Angioma, which is a cluster of dilated blood vessels in the brain.
  • A complication of surgery for some heart conditions.

Anyone with a sudden severe headache should be seen by a medical provider, so that a more serious cause can be ruled out. A transient ischemic attack, also known as TIA or mini-stroke, can have symptoms similar to a migraine but is far more serious.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as a CT scan.

Treatment for migraine varies with the individual. Lifestyle changes may be recommended and there are a number of medications that may be tried.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: new headache, fatigue, nausea, mild headache, headache that worsens when head moves

Symptoms that always occur with new migraine: new headache

Symptoms that never occur with new migraine: fever, diarrhea, productive cough, headache resulting from a head injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Sinus headache

Sinus headache, also called sinusitis or rhinosinusitis, is caused by either a bacterial or a viral infection of the sinuses (open spaces) behind the eyes and nose.

Symptoms include fever; thick nasal discharge which may be clear, white, greenish or yellowish; some loss of sense of smell; foul-smelling breath; and pain, congestion, and pressure over the sinus areas of the face, especially if bending forward or lying down.

A self-diagnosed "sinus headache" very often turns out to be a migraine headache with a few sinus symptoms. This requires very different treatment from an actual sinus headache, and is an important reason to see a medical provider about any sort of ongoing headaches.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes CT scan or MRI of the head to look for changes in the sinuses.

A true sinus headache, if caused by a bacterial infection, will be treated with antibiotics. If caused by a viral infection, the symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers and alternating hot and cold compresses.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: headache, headache that worsens when head moves, facial fullness or pressure, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, sinus pain

Symptoms that always occur with sinus headache: headache

Symptoms that never occur with sinus headache: fever, being severely ill, sore throat, muscle aches, cough, drooping eyelid, wateriness in both eyes

Urgency: Self-treatment

Exertion headache

An exertion or activity-related headache occurs as a result of strenuous activity. This type of headache is often triggered by exercise.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: headache, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to noise, headache with a pressing or tightening quality, headache near both temples

Symptoms that always occur with exertion headache: headache

Symptoms that never occur with exertion headache: vomiting, double vision, fever

Urgency: Self-treatment

Headache That Worsens When Head Moves Symptom Checker

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Acute bacterial sinusitis

Acute bacterial sinusitis, also called bacterial rhinosinusitis or "sinus infection," has symptoms much like viral rhinosinusitis but a different treatment.

Any sinusitis usually begins with common cold viruses. Sometimes a secondary bacterial infection takes hold. Like cold viruses, these bacteria can be inhaled after an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Anyone with viral sinusitis, upper-respiratory allergy, nasal passage abnormality, lung illness, or a weakened immune system is more prone to bacterial sinusitis.

Symptoms include thick yellowish or greenish nasal discharge; one-sided pain in the upper jaw or teeth; one-sided sinus pain and pressure; fatigue; fever; and symptoms that get worse after first improving.

See a doctor right away for severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, or vision changes. These can indicate a medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made with a simple examination in the doctor's office.

Bacterial sinusitis can be treated with antibiotics, but this is not always necessary. Often rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers and decongestants are enough.

Prevention is done through good lifestyle and hygiene to keep the immune system strong.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, muscle aches

Symptoms that always occur with acute bacterial sinusitis: sinusitis symptoms

Symptoms that never occur with acute bacterial sinusitis: clear runny nose, being severely ill

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Cluster headache (first attack)

A "new onset" cluster headache means that the person has never experienced a cluster headache before. These headaches most commonly start after age 20.

A cluster headache is characterized by intense pain on one side of the forehead, especially over one eye. It often strikes in "clusters," meaning the headache comes and goes frequently. It may occur at about the same time of day for several days or weeks in a row.

The specific cause for cluster headache is not known. Drinking alcohol, breathing strong fumes, exercising to the point of becoming overheated, and heavy smoking are all possible triggers.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, since there is no specific test for cluster headache. Blood tests, neurologic tests, and imaging such as a CT scan or MRI may be done to rule out any other cause for the new onset of head pain.

Referral will be made to a headache specialist, who can offer new treatments to help the patient manage the symptoms and improve quality of life.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: new headache, severe headache, nausea, throbbing headache, congestion

Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache (first attack): severe headache, new headache

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Common cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.

The common cold is, of course, very common...

Read more

Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.

Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck

Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder: pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Treatment for Headaches that Worsen When You Move

At-home treatments

Primary headaches that worsen with movement are often trigger-related. Try the following tips to soothe your symptoms.

  • Decrease stress: Reducing stress is much easier said than done, but taking up activities such as yoga or meditation can give you the tools to help deal with life's stressors in healthy ways.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet: Replacing beverages such as caffeine or alcohol for water can go a long way in reducing headaches.
  • Get adequate sleep: A good night's rest is the brain's way of recovering each day to work well the next. Your brain can manifest its exhaustion and lack of recovery in the form of headaches that may worsen with movement.

When to see a doctor

You should always see a medical professional for headaches that worsen with positional changes, especially if the above suggestions do not help soothe symptoms. This headache might be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as increased intracranial pressure, that requires professional attention. Your physician may discuss the following.

  • Treatment of pressure changes: If your intracranial pressure increases, you may receive medication to reduce swelling or a shunt to drain extra fluid or blood. If you have intracranial hypotension, your physician will treat your pain and try to increase pressure by replacing lost volume.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: If your headaches are the result of inflammatory conditions, your physician may prescribe antibiotics or other anti-inflammatory medications.
  • Medication adjustments: In the case of medication-induced headaches, your physician may change your medication or reduce the dose.

When it is an emergency

You should see a physician immediately if you experience an abrupt, severe headache, or a headache with the following symptoms that indicate meningitis or a stroke [5].

FAQs About Headache That Worsens When Head Moves

Here are some frequently asked questions about a headache that worsens when the head moves.

Why does my headache become worse when I move it from a supine position (laying down) to an upright position?

In a situation of low intracranial pressure, the brain is "floating" in a lower volume of cerebrospinal fluid. Less cerebrospinal fluid allows gravity to push the brain downward when you sit upright. The brain then presses against the pain-sensing structures at the base of the skull [4,6].

Why does my headache feel better when I lay down?

The reason why you feel better when you lie down is the opposite of why you feel worse when standing up [6]. If you have intracranial hypotension, lying down allows even distribution of the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain. Lying down lessens the effect of gravity on the skull and allows the brain to better float in the CSF, lessening the amount of pressure on the pain-sensitive nerves and structures at the base of the skull.

Is low intracranial pressure an emergency?

Low intracranial pressure due to the leaking of cerebrospinal fluid is a severe condition and requires prompt follow-up. If you experience symptoms of nausea, vomiting, changes in vision or concentration, see a physician immediately.

How long will my symptoms last?

How long your symptoms last will depend on the specific cause. For example, in the case of an inflammatory etiology for a positional headache, usually, the headache symptoms will resolve with resolution of the underlying etiology.

Will I need imaging to diagnose my headaches that worsen with movement?

If you are experiencing a severe headache also associated with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, changes in vision, and other systemic signs, you will get imaging (usually first with a CT scan) to identify your condition.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Headache That Worsens When Head Moves

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Have you lost your appetite recently?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your headache that worsens when head moves. These questions are also covered.

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Headache That Worsens When Head Moves Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced headache that worsens when head moves have also experienced:

  • 9% Throbbing Headache
  • 9% Nausea
  • 5% Headache

People who have experienced headache that worsens when head moves were most often matched with:

  • 33% Tension Headache (First Onset)
  • 33% New Migraine
  • 33% Sinus Headache

People who have experienced headache that worsens when head moves had symptoms persist for:

  • 53% Less than a day
  • 28% Less than a week
  • 7% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Headache That Worsens When Head Moves Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your headache that worsens when head moves

References

  1. The complete headache chart. National Headache Foundation. National Headache Foundation Link
  2. Headache: When to worry, what to do. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published June 2009. Harvard Health Publishing Link
  3. Spinal headaches. Mayo Clinic. Published April 26, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link
  4. Increased intracranial pressure (ICP). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  5. Schwedt TJ. Headache "red flags": When to see your doctor. American Migraine Foundation. Published July 8, 2015. American Migraine Foundation Link
  6. Cullan AM, Grover ML. 56-year-old with positional headache. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2011;86(6):e-35-8. NCBI Link
  7. Dangra VR, Sharma YB, Bharucha NE, Deopujari CE. An Interesting case of headache. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. 2011;14(2):130-2. NCBI Link