A compression headache is a type of headache that starts when you wear something tight across your forehead or scalp. Hats, goggles, and headbands are common culprits. These headaches are sometimes referred to as external compression headaches since they involve pressure from something outside your body.
Read on to learn more about the symptoms of a compression headache, why they happen, and what you can do for relief.
A compression headache feels like intense pressure coupled with moderate pain. You’ll feel the most pain in the part of your head that’s under pressure. If you’re wearing goggles, for example, you might feel pain across the front of your forehead or near your temples.
The pain tends to increase the longer you wear the compressing object.
Compression headaches are often easy to recognize because they usually start within an hour of putting something on your head.
Other signs of a compression headache include:
- pain that’s steady, not pulsing
- not having any other symptoms, such as nausea or dizziness
- pain that goes away within an hour of removing the source of pressure
Compression headaches can turn into migraines in people who are already prone to getting migraines. Symptoms of a migraine include:
- throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head
- sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes touch
- nausea, vomiting
- blurred vision
A compression headache starts when a tight object placed on or around your head puts pressure on nerves under your skin. The trigeminal nerve and occipital nerves are often affected. These are cranial nerves that send signals from your brain to your face and the back of your head.
Anything that presses on your forehead or scalp can cause a compression headache, including these types of headgear:
- football, hockey, or baseball helmets
- police or military helmets
- hard hats used for construction
- swim or protective goggles
- tight hats
While everyday objects can cause compression headaches, such headaches aren’t actually that common. Only about 4 percent of people get them.
People who regularly wear helmets for work or sports are more likely to develop compression headaches. For example, a study involving Danish service members found that up to 30 percent of participants said they got headaches from wearing a military helmet.
Others who might be more prone to compression headaches include:
- police officers
- construction workers
- members of the military
- football, hockey, and baseball players
You’re also more likely to get a compression headache if you:
- are female
- get migraines
In addition, some people are just more sensitive than others to pressure on their head.
Generally, you don’t need to see a doctor for compression headaches. The pain usually goes away once you remove the source of pressure.
However, if you find that the pain keeps coming back, even when you’re not wearing anything on your head, make an appointment with your doctor. They may ask you some of the following questions during your appointment:
- When did the headaches start?
- How long have you been having them?
- What were you doing when they started?
- Were you wearing anything on your head when they started? What were you wearing?
- Where is the pain located?
- What does it feel like?
- How long does the pain last?
- What makes the pain worse? What makes it better?
- What other symptoms, if any, do you have?
Based on your answers, they may do some of the following tests to rule out any underlying causes of your headaches:
Compression headaches are some of the easiest headaches to treat. Once you remove the source of pressure, your pain should ease up within an hour.
If you get compression headaches that turn into migraines, you can try over-the-counter medications, such as:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- over-the-counter migraine relievers that contain acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (Excedrin Migraine)
You can also ask your doctor about prescription migraine medications, such as triptans and ergots.
Compression headaches are relatively easy to treat. Once you relieve the source of pressure by taking off the hat, headband, helmet, or goggles, the pain should go away.
To avoid these headaches in the future, avoid wearing tight hats or headgear unless absolutely necessary. If you do need to wear a helmet or goggles for safety reasons, make sure they fit well. It should be snug enough to protect your head, but not too tight that it causes pressure or pain.