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Your Throbbing Headache May Also be Known as:
Pulsing headache

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. A throbbing headache might commonly be called a migraine, a hangover, 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.

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. 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. 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.
  • 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:

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.

Top 6 Throbbing Headache Causes

  1. 1.Cluster Headache (New Onset)

    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.

    You should visit your primary care physician to discuss symptoms, especially if the headaches are worsening or happening more frequently. Cluster headaches are diagnosed purely by history. Treatment options include extra oxygen and prescription medications.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, new headache, severe headache, throbbing headache, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache (new onset):
    severe headache, new headache
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Cluster Headache

    A cluster headache is a type of recurring 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 can occur regularly for 1 week and up to 1 year. Each period of attacks (i.e. each cluster) is separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Other common headaches may also occur during these cluster-free periods.

    You should visit your primary care physician to discuss symptoms, especially if the headaches are worsening or happening more frequently. Cluster headaches are diagnosed purely by history. Treatment options include extra oxygen and prescription medications.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    severe headache, nausea, sensitivity to light, throbbing headache, history of headaches
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache:
    severe headache
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Recurrent Cluster Headache

    A cluster headache is a type of recurring 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 can occur regularly for 1 week and up to 1 year. Each period of attacks (i.e. each cluster) is separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Other common headaches may also occur during these cluster-free periods.

    You should visit your primary care physician to discuss symptoms, especially if the headaches are worsening or happening more frequently. Cluster headaches are diagnosed purely by history. Treatment options include extra oxygen and prescription medications.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, severe headache, throbbing headache, congestion, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with recurrent cluster headache:
    severe headache
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Throbbing Headache Checker

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  4. 4.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.

    You can safely treat this condition on your own. Tension-type headaches are diagnosed purely by your symptoms. Medications, such as over-the-counter pain killers (e.g., ibuprofen or Tylenol) may help. However, it is important not to take them too regularly. Taking them more than two or three times a week can cause more headaches, as the body gets used to the drug, and the headache comes back when you stop taking the medication. If these headaches become more chronic in nature, you should visit your primary care physician, as chronic tension-type headaches can be more effectively treated with prescription medications and additional non-drug therapies.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, moderate headache, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset):
    new headache
    Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset):
    hidden: both photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  5. 5.Tension Headache (Previously Undiagnosed)

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

    You can safely treat this condition on your own. Tension-type headaches are diagnosed purely by your symptoms. Medications like over-the-counter pain killers (e.g., ibuprofen or Tylenol) may help. Be cautious with dosage and how often these are used. If these headaches become more chronic in nature, you should visit your primary care physician, who will evaluate your symptoms and may be able to prescribe a stronger medications.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    history of headaches, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, moderate headache, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (previously undiagnosed):
    history of headaches
    Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (previously undiagnosed):
    change in urine color, hidden: both photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  6. 6.Recurrent Tension Headache

    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.

    You can safely treat this condition on your own. Tension-type headaches are diagnosed purely by your symptoms. Medications, such as over-the-counter pain killers (e.g., ibuprofen or Tylenol) may help. However, it is important not to take them too regularly. Taking them more than two or three times a week can cause more headaches, as the body gets used to the drug, and the headache comes back when you stop taking the medication. If these headaches become more chronic in nature, you should visit your primary care physician, as chronic tension-type headaches can be more effectively treated with prescription medications and adjuvant non-drug therapies.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, moderate headache, history of headaches, loss of appetite, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with recurrent tension headache:
    headache
    Symptoms that never occur with recurrent tension headache:
    nausea, change in urine color, hidden: both photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

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.

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Discussion of specific medications:

    • Migraines are sometimes helped by Botox injections.
    • 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.

Throbbing headache remedies that you can try at home:

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

    • 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.
  • Take steps to decrease daily stress and learn stress management.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Throbbing Headache

  • Q.How severe is your headache?
  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?

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

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Throbbing Headache Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced throbbing headache have also experienced:

    • 16% Nausea
    • 5% Fatigue
    • 3% Dizziness
  • People who have experienced throbbing headache had symptoms persist for:

    • 51% Less Than a Day
    • 28% Less Than a Week
    • 8% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced throbbing headache were most often matched with:

    • 11% Cluster Headache (New Onset)
    • 2% Cluster Headache

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    Throbbing Headache Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having throbbing headache.

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