Symptoms A-Z

Scalp Pain Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

A sore scalp can be caused by infected hair follicles, scalp pimples, or tension from certain hairstyles that may pull the hair too tight. Other causes for scalp tenderness include trauma from a head injury, or underlying skin condition like eczema or cellulitis. Read on for more information on causes and treatment options.

Scalp Pain Symptom Checker

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Scalp Pain Symptoms

Scalp pain is often very uncomfortable and disconcerting. Scalp pain symptoms can take a variety forms and it is difficult to find at-home relief that does not include multiple painkillers. For some people, the scalp pain symptoms can be so severe as to require missed days at work or school [1].

Even though it may be difficult to think clearly through the scalp pain, it is important to take note of the quality of your pain and any patterns. Is the pain dull? Sharp? Tight? Stabbing? When did the pain start? Is it constant or does it happen only at particular times? Are there any triggers to the pain? Such observations may help you and your doctor find the correct cause

Common accompanying symptoms of scalp pain

If you're experiencing scalp pain, it's also likely to experience:

  • Skin that feels warm to the touch
  • Flaking or itching
  • Burning
  • Pain that spreads: Such as from the scalp to the face, jaw, neck or shoulders [2]

Scalp Pain Causes

The overwhelming majority of cases of scalp pain can be attributed to causes that put direct pressure or tension on the scalp [3]. However, there are medical issues that can affect the nerves and blood vessels of the scalp and these can lead to debilitating scalp pain symptoms [4,5]. Regardless of the source, most causes of scalp pain are benign and treatable once proper medical attention is obtained.

Medical causes

Medical causes of scalp pain may include the following.

  • Neurologic: Neurologic causes such as headaches and trigeminal neuralgia (a nerve condition that affect sensation to your face) can cause scalp pain symptoms and pain that spreads to other parts of your head such as the jaw, teeth and lips. Nerves can also be affected by certain viruses that result in scalp pain [2].
  • Autoimmune: Some autoimmune diseases can cause inflammation of the blood vessels in your head leading to scalp pain. One such condition is called Giant Cell Arteritis, also known as Temporal Arteritis [5,6].
  • Dermatologic: Skin conditions such as eczema or dandruff can cause inflammation of the scalp. This inflammation can cause excessive itching that may result in tenderness and scalp pain [1].

Environmental causes

Environmental causes of scalp pain may be related to certain exposures or events.

  • Sunburn: A long day outside can cause sunburn not only on your body but also on your scalp. Symptoms of a scalp burn can feel very similar to those of sunburn on the body, including symptoms of pain and tenderness [7].
  • Tension: Hairstyles such as ponytails or braids can cause strain and tension to the scalp that may result in pain and discomfort.
  • Trauma: Any situation where your scalp is hit or cut can result in prolonged scalp pain. Often the injury may not be initially apparent due to location of the laceration (i.e. back of the head) or hair covering the scalp [8].

7 Possible Scalp Pain Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced scalp pain. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Giant cell arteriis

Giant cell arteritis is a disorder that causes inflammation of arteries of the scalp, neck, and arms. It narrows the arteries, which keeps blood from flowing well.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, joint pain, new headache, fever, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Uncomplicated head injury

An uncomplicated closed head injury is a diagnosis of exclusion. If someone has been seen by a physician and more serious types of injury are deemed unlikely, this is a common variation of closed head injury.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: head or face injury, face pain, headache resulting from a head injury, scalp pain, new headache

Symptoms that always occur with uncomplicated head injury: head or face injury

Symptoms that never occur with uncomplicated head injury: bleeding from the ear, nausea or vomiting, current loss of consciousness, feeling confused and not making sense while talking

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain

Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Scalp Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your scalp pain

Whitehead

Whiteheads are caused by hair follicles becoming clogged with oil & dead skin cells. When the clogged pore is closed to the air by a layer of skin cells, the oil/dead skin cells remains white (as opposed to a blackhead).

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: small facial lump, yellow or white facial bump

Symptoms that always occur with whitehead: small facial lump, yellow or white facial bump

Urgency: Self-treatment

Skin abscess

A skin abscess is a large pocket of pus that has formed just beneath the skin. It is caused by bacteria getting under the skin, usually through a small cut or scratch, and beginning to multiply. The body fights the invasion with white blood cells, which kill some of the infected tissue but form pus within the cavity that remains.

Symptoms include a large, red, swollen, painful lump of pus anywhere on the body beneath the skin. There may be fever, chills, and body aches from the infection.

If not treated, there is the risk of an abscess enlarging, spreading, and causing serious illness.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

A small abscess may heal on its own, through the body's immune system. But some will need to be drained or lanced in a medical provider's office so that the pus can be cleaned out. Antibiotics are usually prescribed.

Keeping the skin clean, and using only clean clothes and towels, will help to make sure that the abscess does not recur.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: rash with bumps or blisters, red rash, red skin bump larger than 1/2 cm in diameter, pus-filled rash, rash

Symptoms that always occur with skin abscess: rash with bumps or blisters

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Severe skin abscess

A skin abscess is an infection of the deeper skin that's typically due to bacteria seen on the skin. Recently, infections are more frequently caused by Staph. Aureus (puts the "staph" in "staph infections"). If the infection begins to spread, urgent treatment is required.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, fever, painful neck lump, marble-size neck lump, pink or red neck bump

Symptoms that always occur with severe skin abscess: pink or red neck bump, red bump

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Pimple

Pimples are also called comedones, spots, blemishes, or "zits." Medically, they are small skin eruptions filled with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria.

Pimples often first start appearing at puberty, when hormones increase the production of oil in the skin and sometimes clog the pores.

Most susceptible are teenagers from about ages 13 to 17.

Symptoms include blocked pores that may appear flat and black on the surface, because the oil darkens when exposed to the air; blocked pores that appear white on the surface because they have closed over with dead skin cells; or swollen, yellow-white, pus-filled blisters surrounded by reddened skin.

Outbreaks of pimples on the skin can interfere with quality of life, making the person self-conscious about their appearance and causing pain and discomfort in the skin. A medical provider can help to manage the condition, sometimes through referral to a dermatologist.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment involves improving diet; keeping the skin, hair, washcloths, and towels very clean; and using over-the-counter acne remedies.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: pink or red facial bump, small facial lump, painful facial bump, marble sized facial lump

Symptoms that always occur with pimple: pink or red facial bump

Urgency: Self-treatment

Scalp Pain Treatments and Relief

At-home treatments for scalp pain

To address your symptoms at home, you can try these methods.

  • Resist scratching: If you are experiencing symptoms of flaking or itching along with your scalp pain, resist the urge to scratch your scalp. Often scratching may seem to provide temporary relief, but in the long run it can exacerbate inflammation and make your scalp pain worsen.
  • Address stress:Take note of any stressors in your life that may be contributing to headaches. Find ways to relax and destress [4].
  • Try hairstyles that are more loose: Minimize hairstyles such as high ponytails or braids that cause tension to the scalp. Often prolonged use of such hairstyles can lead to hair loss or receding hairline in addition to the pain.
  • Protect your scalp from the sun: Putting sunscreen in your hair may not be the most pleasant option, so wear a hat on days you will be outdoors to prevent sunburn of the scalp. If wearing a hat is not an option, spray a mix of water and aloe vera juice or onto your scalp to protect against the strong rays of the sun.

When to see a doctor for scalp pain

If your scalp pain persists despite the remedies above or you have experienced any trauma to the scalp, make an appointment with your doctor. Depending on the cause of your pain, your doctor may suggest:

  • Anticonvulsants: Do not be alarmed; your scalp pain is most likely not the result of seizures. Several anticonvulsant medications can also be used to combat nerve pain. Your doctor may prescribe gabapentin or carbamazepine [9,10].
  • Skin creams or steroids: Dermatologic conditions such as eczema can be treated with topical skin creams and steroids. If your dermatologic condition is very serious, you doctor may prescribe systemic treatment.

When scalp pain is an emergency

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience sudden onset scalp pain accompanied by fever or visual symptoms. These could be signs of temporal arteritis which must be treated quickly.

FAQs About Scalp Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about scalp pain.

Why do I experience scalp pain while pregnant?

Hormonal changes during pregnancy cause dermatological changes to the scalp, ranging from dry, itchy skin to greasy, acne-prone skin. These changes can lead to new development or worsening of existing skin conditions like eczema or seborrheic dermatitis, which can cause you to have a tender scalp. Furthermore, headaches and migraines can contribute to scalp pain [2].

Can you have scalp pain from wearing your hair up?

The base of each of your hair follicles contain sensory nerve fibers. Bending the hair stimulates these nerve endings, allowing you to feel that your hair has been moved. Putting up your hair into a ponytail stimulates the nerve fibers. The tighter or heavier your ponytail, the more pressure that is placed on the nerve fibers, which will transmit signals to your brain that will be interpreted as a painful and uncomfortable sensation.

Why is my scalp burning?

Burning scalp pain can occur for a variety of reasons. The pain may be stemming from inflammatory skin conditions such as dandruff, fungal infection, psoriasis, or eczema. The pain may also be secondary to an underlying neurological dysfunction, most likely either temporal arteritis or trigeminal neuralgia. Electric-like pain is a particularly specific sign of possible inflammation or compression of nerves in the vicinity of the pain [2,5].

Can my scalp get sunburned?

Yes, the scalp can undergo sun damage. Although men and women with significant hair loss are more prone to sun damage, having hair will not completely protect you against sunburn. Just like the rest of the skin, UV rays can still reach the scalp after one spends an extended amount of time out in the sun. Wearing a cap/hat will reduce the risk of exposure.

Why is my scalp itchy?

The scalp can be itchy for numerous reasons. The most common reason is dandruff, which occurs when your body undergoes an inflammatory response due to an overgrowth of yeast on the scalp, causing itching and flaking.Other common causes include psoriasis (an autoimmune disease), tinea capitis (a fungal infection known as ringworm), [11] head lice, [12] and reactions to foreign chemicals such as new hair dyes or anything coming into contact with the scalp.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Scalp Pain

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

  • Did you get hit in the head?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Did you faint?

The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.

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

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your scalp pain

Scalp Pain Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced scalp pain have also experienced:

  • 17% Headache
  • 11% Eye Pain
  • 5% Face Pain

People who have experienced scalp pain were most often matched with:

  • 40% Giant Cell Arteriis
  • 40% Cellulitis
  • 20% Uncomplicated Head Injury

People who have experienced scalp pain had symptoms persist for:

  • 38% Less than a day
  • 28% Less than a week
  • 19% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Scalp Pain Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your scalp pain

References

  1. Godse K, Zawar V. Sensitive Scalp. International Journal of Trichology. 2012;4(2):102-104. NCBI Link
  2. Gilden D, Nagel MA. Varicella Zoster Virus and Giant Cell Arteritis. Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases. 2016;29(3):275-279. NCBI Link
  3. Grunzweig K, Keys KA. Full-Thickness Scalp Injury Due to Hair Braiding and Weave. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery - Global Open. 2015;3(8):e477. NCBI Link
  4. Allen DT, Voytovich MC, Allen JC. Painful Chewing and Blindness: Signs and Symptoms of Temporal Arteritis. The Journal of the American Dental Association. 2000;131(12):1738-1741. NCBI Link
  5. Agrawal SM, Kambalimath DH. Trigeminal Neuralgia Involving Supraorbital and Infraorbital Nerves. National Journal of Maxillofacial Surgery. 2010;1(2):179-182. NCBI Link
  6. Cojocaru IM, Cojocaru M, Silosi I, Vrabie CD. Peripheral Nervous System Manifestations in Systemic Autoimmune Diseases. Maedica. 2014;9(3):289-294. NCBI Link
  7. Sunburn Treatment: What Works? Mayo Clinic Health System. Published July 6, 2015. Mayo Clinic Health System Link
  8. Emergency Department Guideline: Laceration Repair. University of Minnesota: Department of Pediatrics. Published November 2014. UMN Link
  9. Roles of Neurogenic Inflammation and Topical 6% Gabapentin Therapy in Symptomatic Scarring Alopecia. ClinicalTrials.gov. Updated May 31, 2018. ClinicalTrials.gov Link.
  10. Carbamazepine for Chronic Neuropathic Pain and Fibromyalgia in Adults. Cochrane. Published April 10, 2014. Cochrane Link
  11. Chen C, Williams JV, Hubbard TW. Selenium Sulfide, Ketoconazole and Ciclopirox Shampoo as Additional Treatments for Tinea Capitis (Scalp Ringworm). U.S. National Library of Medicine: ClinicalTrials.gov. Updated July 9, 2008. ClinicalTrials.gov Link
  12. Head Lice Infestations: A Clinical Update. Paediatrics Child Health. 2008;13(8):692-696. NCBI Link

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.