Everyone is familiar with the throbbing, aching, pressurized pain that characterizes a headache. There are many different types of headache that can range in severity from mild to debilitating. They can come about for a multitude of reasons.

Generally speaking, headaches occur when you experience swelling or increased pressure on your nerves. In response to this pressure change, a pain signal is sent to the brain, which sets off the painful experience we know as a headache.

It’s fairly common for people to experience headaches after having surgery. If you’re experiencing postoperative headaches, there are many different potential causes and treatments you can use to help find relief.

People experience headaches for plenty of different reasons, but if you’re experiencing headaches after a major or minor surgery, there are some common causes.

The most common reasons people have headaches after a surgery are due to anesthesia and the type of surgery performed.

Anesthesia

Anesthesia is a way to control pain using anesthetic medicine. Most surgeries involve one or a combination of these forms of anesthesia:

  • General anesthesia causes patients to lose consciousness, effectively putting them to sleep so they’re not aware of any pain.
  • Regional anesthesia involves injecting an anesthetic to numb a large portion of your body. For example, an epidural is a regional anesthetic mixed with a narcotic that’s injected into your spinal membrane to numb the lower half of your body.
  • Local anesthesia is like regional anesthesia, except it’s used to numb a much smaller area of tissue, usually for a minor procedure.

Generally speaking, people tend to report the highest frequency of headaches after receiving spinal anesthesia from an epidural or spinal block. These headaches are caused by pressure changes in your spine or if your spinal membrane was accidentally punctured. Headaches after spinal anesthesia usually appear up to a day after surgery, and resolve themselves in a couple of days or weeks.

People also report headaches after local and general anesthesia. These headaches tend to appear much sooner after surgery and are much more temporary than spinal headaches.

Type of surgery

Another important factor to look for when experiencing postoperative headaches is the type of surgery you had. While all forms of surgery can leave you with a headache, certain forms of surgery are more likely to cause headaches than others:

  • Brain surgery. During brain surgery, the pressure of your brain tissue and cerebrospinal fluid are changed, resulting in a headache.
  • Sinus surgery. After sinus surgery, your sinuses may be inflamed, which can cause pressure changes that lead to painful sinus headaches.
  • Oral surgery. Oral surgery can leave you with a stiff jaw, which can then lead to uncomfortable tension headaches.

Other causes

In addition to headaches caused directly by anesthesia or the type of surgery performed, there are other, more indirect effects of surgery that can lead to development of postoperative headaches, such as:

Headaches are often an uncomfortable side effect of surgery. Fortunately, there are many different ways to treat headaches and manage pain.

Typical treatments include:

If you received a spinal epidural and you’re treating your headaches but they’re not improving, your doctor may suggest an epidural blood patch — a procedure to restore spinal pressure — to relieve the pain.

If you’re experiencing postoperative headaches, don’t worry. With rest, fluids, and time, most headaches will resolve themselves on their own.

If your headaches are extremely painful and don’t respond to normal treatment, you should always speak to your doctor to discuss treatment options.