Ice pick headaches: Symptoms, causes, and treatment
May 3, 2017
May 3, 2017
Symptoms vary and they can present as a sharp pain, a throbbing sensation, or simply a dull ache. A headache can develop gradually or come on suddenly. They can last for a short period or for several days.
There are different types of headaches, and they are classified by cause. This article will look at one particular type of headache: The ice pick headache.
Understanding ice pick headaches
An ice pick headache is a type of a headache that is marked by very brief stabs of pain, most commonly in the front or sides of the head. Other names for ice pick headaches include:
- idiopathic stabbing headache
- jabs and jolts
- primary stabbing headaches
- ophthalmodynia periodica
The pain associated with ice pick headaches tends to last for a few seconds. In some people, however, it may last for up to 1 minute. A headache may also move from one area to another on either the same or opposite side of the head.
Ice pick headaches are classified as a primary stabbing headache. Primary stabbing headaches are caused by overactivity or problems with pain-sensitive structures in the head. They may occur without an identifiable cause, or they could develop from an underlying disease. Some things that are possibly related to primary stabbing headache are herpes zoster, stroke, migraine, and multiple sclerosis.
The exact cause of ice pick headaches is unknown. Chemical activity in the brain, nerves, or blood vessels surrounding the skull, or the muscles in the head and neck, can play a role in primary headaches. In some cases, people may have a gene that makes them prone to developing headaches.
Primary headaches can be triggered by certain lifestyle factors, including:
- changes in sleep pattern or a lack of sleep
- poor posture
- not eating meals at regular times
- certain foods, including processed meats that contain nitrates
Ice pick headaches typically occur in people who get migraines. Features of migraines sometimes occur with ice pick headaches, such as sensitivity to light and sound. These headaches typically affect middle-aged people, particularly women, but can happen at any age.
In some people, ice pick headaches can also cause nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.
Migraines are recurrent attacks of moderate to severe pain. The pain can be described as throbbing or pulsing and is typically found on one side of the head.
People with migraines often complain of sensitivity to light and sounds. Many people also experience nausea and vomiting. Many factors can trigger a migraine, including:
- lack of food or sleep
- exposure to light
- hormonal changes (in women)
A migraine can last for hours to days. In some cases, the pain can become so unbearable that it is disabling.
Some people may experience warning signs, such as an aura, a headache, flashes of light, blind spots, or body tingling, but this is not always the case.
Migraines are often compared to headaches, but it is important to note that a migraine is more than just a bad headache. It is actually a neurological disorder.
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are the third most prevalent and sixth most disabling illness in the world. They affect 38 million women and children in the United States. Migraines are also more common in women than men, affecting about 28 million women in America.
Similar headache disorders
There is not a specific diagnostic test for ice pick headaches. Instead, the doctor will rely on the person’s description of their symptoms.
There are a few headache disorders that are similar, and must be ruled out. These disorders include:
This is a rare form of headache that tends to appear in adulthood. People experience symptoms, such as severe throbbing and pain, that are usually on one side of the face. This pain is typically around or behind the eye and occasionally the back of the neck.
Attacks can occur 5-40 times per day and last for 2-30 minutes. Paroxysmal hemicranias occur more often in women than in men.
This is a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal or fifth cranial nerve, which is one of the most widely distributed nerves in the head.
Symptoms include infrequent, sudden burning or shock-like facial pain that can last from a few seconds to 2 minutes. The attacks can occur in quick succession for up to 2 hours.
This rare headache disorder involves the occipital nerves. These two pairs of nerves start near the second and third bones at the top of the spine.
People generally complain of pain that starts at the base of the skull close to the nape of the neck. The pain can then spread to the area behind the eyes and to the back, front, and side of the head.
Symptoms may include continuous aching, burning, throbbing, and intermittent shocking or shooting pain. Some people even describe the pain as similar to that of a migraine or cluster headache.
Treatment and long-term care
Treating an ice pick headache can be tricky. Ice pick headaches typically do not require any treatment. The pain is so brief that medicines such as painkillers do not often help. These headaches can occur once or several times per day, at regular intervals, but never last long.
However, people who are experiencing lots of painful episodes may want to try some of the treatment options that are available. There are some drugs available that do work.
Indomethacin is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication that is successful in treating ice pick headaches. Other drug options include gabapentin, cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitors, and melatonin.
A headache can be a warning sign for something more serious, such as a stroke or meningitis. People should always seek medical help if a headache develops after a blow to the head.
A severe headache requires immediate medical attention when it is accompanied by one of the following:
- trouble seeing, speaking, or walking
For the most part, people can function normally with ice pick headaches. People should see a doctor if they begin to worsen or begin to interrupt daily activities, such as working or sleeping. A doctor can review their medical history and come up with an appropriate treatment plan.