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Throbbing Headache Symptoms

A painfully throbbing headache can be among the most debilitating of illnesses. Headaches can be difficult to treat, but once you can pin down exactly what type you have the diagnosis and proper headache treatment can become easier to find.

The throbbing sensation is caused by dilated blood vessels in the head and brain, which can be very painful [1, 2, 3]. A throbbing headache might commonly be called a migraine [1, 2, 3, 4, 5], a hangover [6], or a caffeine headache.

Characteristics:

Duration of symptoms:

  • A throbbing headache often lasts for several hours, but rarely goes much longer than this.

Who is most often affected by throbbing headache symptoms?

  • Anyone using caffeine on a regular basis.
  • Anyone binge-drinking alcohol.
  • Women, due to fluctuating hormone levels [3, 4, 6].

When are throbbing headaches most likely to occur?

  • When skipping caffeine and you are accustomed to consuming it each day.
  • The morning after binge drinking.
  • When neglecting to eat and going too long between meals, allowing blood sugar to drop too low.
  • During a period of severe emotional stress.

Are throbbing headaches serious?

  • A throbbing headache caused by skipping caffeine, or by an alcohol binge, will eventually clear up and can be prevented by using these substances with more care – or by not using them at all.
  • A migraine headache, with throbbing that is localized and severe and accompanied by other symptoms, can be quite debilitating and interfere with work, school, and relationships.
  • Any headache that also has symptoms of stroke – including loss of use of one side of the body – is very serious and must be seen by a medical provider immediately.

Throbbing Headache Causes Overview

We've listed several different throbbing headache causes here, in approximate order from most to least common:

Medications: Overuse of over-the-counter pain relievers can cause you to take more of the pain reliever if the headache returns, thus building up a tolerance for the pain reliever – and the cycle begins [10]. The only way to end the cycle is to wean off of the pain relievers and try to control the headaches another way.

Caffeine: If you suddenly stop consuming the amount of caffeine you are used to getting each day, you may end up with rebound headaches [7]. This is because caffeine constricts the blood vessels – makes them tighter and narrower – and they will suddenly dilate again once the caffeine wears off, sometimes painfully so. This is common soon after surgery because patients were permitted to eat or drink before.

Alcohol: Moderate, occasional social drinking usually causes no problems, but binge drinking can lead to:

  • Dilation and irritation of the blood vessels in the brain and in the surrounding tissue.
  • Dehydration the next day, which can cause severe headaches.

Foods:

  • Some foods may trigger allergies or other sensitivities, leading to a headache [11].
  • Low blood sugar due to hunger may cause a throbbing headache.

Hormonal imbalance, primarily in women: Anything that impacts the proper balance may trigger a migraine headache in some women [4, 12]:

Severe emotional stress and upset: these types of stress can ca use a headache, mostly due to tension and constriction of the muscles of the head.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Throbbing Headache

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced throbbing headache. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Caffeine Withdrawal Headache

    While many people can consume caffeine without any problems, some people might experience symptoms due to caffeine use. Caffeine can be found in many food and drink products like coffee, tea, soda an chocolate. Anti-headache medication often also contains caffeine. When the body gets accustomed to a certain amount of daily caffeine intake, stopping this intake suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms often include headaches, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

    Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can last up to a week.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Symptoms that always occur with caffeine withdrawal headache:
    headache
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.New Migraine

    Migraines are headaches of moderate to severe intensity, which happen when blood vessels in the brain swell up. They are episodic and thus can recur often. Most migraine sufferers experience increased sensitivity to sounds and/or lights and become nauseous and vomit.

    Migraine symptoms may resolve within a day or two, but the condition can come and go for a year or more. If any particular episode is unusually severe or does not respond to your customary treatments, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    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
  3. 3.Cluster Headache (First Attack)

    It seems that your headache could represent a first attack of a cluster headache. A cluster headache is a type of headache that is moderate to severe in intensity. It is often one-sided head pain that may involve tearing of the eyes and a stuffy nose. Attacks occur regularly for 1 week to 1 year. The attacks are separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Cluster headaches may be confused with other common types of headaches such as migraines, sinus headache, and tension headache.

    Each attack can last from 15 min to 3 hours and occurs from once every other day up to 8 times per day. Cluster periods usually resolve in a few weeks to months but can last up to a year.

    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
  4. 4.Subarachnoid Hemorrhage

    Subarachnoid hemorrhage is bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissues that cover the brain. It's typically caused by a ruptured aneurysm (out-pouching of an artery's wall).

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, being severely ill, nausea or vomiting, severe headache, vision changes
    Symptoms that always occur with subarachnoid hemorrhage:
    new headache, being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  5. 5.Insomnia Disorder

    Insomnia is a very common sleep disorder that prevents one from falling asleep, staying asleep, or a combination of both.

    Condition is treatable with medication and behavior changes.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, mild headache, insomnia
    Symptoms that always occur with insomnia disorder:
    trouble sleeping
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  6. 6.Sinus Headache

    Sinus headaches are very common. When compared to a normal headache, this pain is generally around the eyes, sinuses, and upper cheeks.

    A few days

    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, headache resulting from a head injury, severe headache, unexplained limb pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  7. 7.Acute Viral Sinusitis

    Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinus spaces behind the nose and cheeks. These spaces produce mucus, which drains into the nose. If the nose is swollen or if the mucus does not drain, this can block the sinuses and cause pain or infection.

    Symptoms should subside within 7-10 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, sore throat, congestion
    Symptoms that always occur with acute viral sinusitis:
    sinusitis symptoms
    Symptoms that never occur with acute viral sinusitis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.Influenza

    Influenza, or Flu, is an infection of the airway caused by the flu virus, which passes through the air and enters the body through the nose or mouth. The symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but the flu is usually more serious.

    Most recover within 1 week but cough and malaise can persist for 2 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, cough, muscle aches
    Symptoms that never occur with influenza:
    headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  9. 9.Brain Tumor or Mass

    A brain lesion can be cancerous or non-cancerous. Nonetheless, they are a potentially serious issue and should be discussed with a physician.

    Uncertain. Prognosis is very dependent on what is found

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability
    Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass:
    focal neurological symptoms
    Urgency:
    In-person visit
  10. 10.Concussion Not Needing Imaging

    A traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussion, happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. More than half are bad enough that people must go to the hospital, and the worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

    Most patients with mild brain injury recover within hours to days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    head or face injury
    Symptoms that never occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    recent fall from 6 feet or higher, severe vomiting, posttraumatic amnesia over 30 minutes, slurred speech, fainting, moderate vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Throbbing Headache Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate throbbing headache treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:

  • The headache is severe and is accompanied by loss of use of part or all of one side of the body [1].

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Discussion of specific medications:

    • Migraines are sometimes helped by Botox injections [2, 3, 4, 5].
    • Other throbbing headaches may be helped by medications that constrict the blood vessels.
    • Steroids are sometimes useful for especially difficult cases.
  • Discussion of ways to regain hormonal balance, especially in women [4, 12].

Throbbing headache remedies that you can try at home:

  • Try over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen [1].
  • Use caffeine and alcohol only in moderation [6, 7].

    • If you do get a caffeine headache, try consuming some caffeine right away as well as drinking extra water.
    • When using caffeine, try consuming about the same amount at about the same times throughout the day.
  • For a headache caused by the aftereffects of drinking alcohol (hangover) drink extra water. Much of the pain of this headache is caused by dehydration from the alcohol.
  • Use ice packs or cold packs on the head, especially while lying down in a darkened room.
  • Take steps to improve diet, sleep, and exercise, to improve overall health [1, 3].
  • Take steps to decrease daily stress and learn stress management.

FAQs About Throbbing Headache

Here are some frequently asked questions about throbbing headache.

Why do I have a sudden throbbing headache?

A sudden throbbing headache can be the symptom of many different disorders [2, 3, 5]. The most common type of headache is a tension headache, which can involve a throbbing sensation across both sides of the head or in the middle of the head. It is often caused by stress, lack of sleep, food, or water, or any number of other stressors including excess sunlight or allergies. Other headaches that can occur suddenly include migraine headaches, which while not immediate, may become painful enough to rise to an individual's attention suddenly. You should be concerned if the headache is severe or if you experience any changes in physical sensation (e.g. touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight, motion, balance) in concert with the headache.

Can stress cause a throbbing headache?

Yes, psychological stress can cause a headache commonly known as a tension headache [2, 3, 5]. Often, excessive worry and a lack of rest because of this worry can contribute to the frequency of these headaches. However, throbbing headaches can also be migraine headaches, strokes, or aneurysms. Accordingly, if you experience any changes in sensation, any weakness or fatigue, or any loss if vision, hearing, or facial droop you should seek medical care immediately.

Why do I have consistent throbbing headaches?

Consistent throbbing headaches lasting longer than a few hours may be migraine headaches, which can last as long as a week in severe cases [4, 5]. Migraine headaches are made better in some cases by medications, and in other cases by darkness, silence, rest, and hydration. If you are experiencing a migraine, resting in a quiet, dark place is often the best treatment for symptoms. It is best, if possible, to take an anti-inflammatory or migraine medication just as a migraine begins and to remain well-rested and hydrated to prevent migraines. Of course, migraines are not the only reason, and you should seek medical evaluation if the headaches continue or become worse.

How do you know if a throbbing headache is a sign of something more?

There is no way to know if a throbbing headache is a sign of something more severe short of medical evaluation. It is best to speak with a medical professional who knows your medical history, has access to your medical records, or tools for proper medical evaluation. It is likely that a more serious process is taking place if you are experiencing numbness, tingling, loss of ability to move one or more body parts, facial drooping, or loss of sense of sight, smell, taste, or hearing.

Why do I wake up with a headache everyday?

Waking up with a headache may be a sign of lack of proper amount of sleep, may occur following sleep apnea (a condition in which you are not able to breathe reliably during sleep) or may be a sign of increased pressure within the skull, possibly from a mass (especially if accompanied by vomiting) [1, 13]. You should seek evaluation from a physician if you are experiencing headaches upon waking every morning.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Throbbing Headache

  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Q.Do you have a cough?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our throbbing headache symptom checker to find out more.

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Throbbing Headache Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced throbbing headache have also experienced:

    • 16% Nausea
    • 4% Headache
    • 4% Fatigue
  • People who have experienced throbbing headache had symptoms persist for:

    • 53% Less Than a Day
    • 28% Less Than a Week
    • 7% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced throbbing headache were most often matched with:

    • 75% Cluster Headache (First Attack)
    • 12% Caffeine Withdrawal Headache
    • 12% New Migraine
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Staehler RA. Anatomy of the Coccyx (Tailbone). Spine-health.com. Updated January 13, 2017. Spine-health.com Link.
  2. Silberstein SD. Overview of Headache. Merck Manual Professional Version. Updated June 2018. Merck Manual Professional Version Link.
  3. Headache: Hope Through Research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated July 6, 2018. NINDS Link.
  4. Migraine Headaches. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link.
  5. Silberstein SD. Migraine. MSD Manual Professional Version. Updated June 2018. MSD Manual Professional Version Link.
  6. Hangover Headache. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link.
  7. Understanding Caffeine Headaches. American Migraine Foundation. Published December 28, 2017. American Migraine Foundation Link.
  8. Rossi HL, Recober A. Photophobia in Primary Headaches. Headache. 2015;55(4):600-604. NCBI Link.
  9. Vanagaite Vingen J, Stovner LJ. Photophobia and Phonophobia in Tension-Type and Cervicogenic Headache. Cephalalgia. 1998;18(6):313-318. NCBI Link.
  10. Understanding Migraine: Medication Overuse Headache. American Migraine Foundation. Published June 11, 2016. American Migraine Foundation Link.
  11. Sutton A. Could a Hidden Allergy Be Causing Your Migraines? Harvard University: Science in the News. Published May 1, 2013. SITN Link.
  12. Goadsby PJ, Hutchinson S, Peterlin BL. Migraine. Office on Women's Health. Updated August 30, 2018. OWH Link.
  13. Headache: When to Worry, What to Do. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Updated July 5, 2018. Harvard Health Publishing Link.