Headaches can cause a dull throbbing or an intense ache and pain in different areas, including the right side of your scalp, base of your skull, and your neck, teeth, or eyes.
While headaches can be uncomfortable, they’re unlikely to be “brain pain.” The brain and skull don’t have nerve endings, so they won’t cause pain directly. Instead, a wide range of factors can affect headaches, from lack of sleep to caffeine withdrawal.
Headaches are most commonly caused from factors like:
- skipping meals
- muscle problems in your neck
- medication side effects, such as long-term use of over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine
Infections and allergies
Sinus infections and allergies can also cause headaches. Headaches resulting from sinus infections are the result of inflammation, which leads to pressure and pain behind your cheekbones and forehead.
Excessive use of medication to treat headaches can actually cause headaches. This is the most common secondary headache disorder, and it affects up to 5 percent of the population. Medication overuse headaches tend to be worst upon awakening.
Occipital neuralgia: There are two occipital nerves in the spine of your upper neck that run through the muscles to your scalp. Irritation of one of these nerves can cause shooting, electric, or tingling pain. Often the pain will be on only one side of your head.
Temporal arteritis: This is a condition in which you have inflamed or damaged arteries that supply blood to your head and brain. This pressure can cause other symptoms such as vision impairment, shoulder or hip pain, jaw pain, and weight loss.
Trigeminal neuralgia: This is a chronic condition that affects the nerve that carries sensation from your face to your brain. The slightest stimulation on your face may trigger a jolt of pain.
More serious causes of headaches that can occur on only one side include:
Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of your headaches.
There are different types of headaches, each of which has different causes and symptoms. Knowing which type of headache you have can help your doctor diagnose the cause.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, occurring in about 75 percent of adults. While they usually affect both sides, they can also be unilateral, or occurring on only one side of your head.
Feels like: A dull ache or a squeezing pain. Your shoulders and neck can also be affected.
Feels like: A severe throbbing or pulsating sensation.
Before or during a migraine, some people will experience “auras,” which are most often visual. Auras can have positive or negative symptoms. Positive symptoms are due to activation of the central nervous system. Examples of positive symptoms include:
- vision disturbances like zigzag vision or flashes of light
- auditory problems like tinnitus or noises
- somatosensory symptoms such as burning or pain
- motor abnormalities like jerking or repetitive movements
Cluster headaches are often painful and involve only one side of your head. You may also experience restlessness, pale or flushed skin, redness of the affected eye, and a runny nose on the affected side of your face.
Feels like: Intense pain, especially eye pain involving only one eye and radiating to areas of your neck, face, head, and shoulders.
Chronic headaches occur 15 or more days a month. They can be tension headaches or chronic migraines. Make an appointment with your doctor to diagnose the cause, if you’re experiencing chronic headaches.
In rare cases, headaches can be an emergency symptom. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience a headache following a trauma, or have a headache along with any of the following symptoms:
- stiff neck
- vision loss
- double vision
- slurred symptoms
- pain near your temples
- increasing pain when moving or coughing
You may also want to visit your doctor if the headache is sudden and severe, wakes you up at night, or gets increasingly worse.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if you’re experiencing a change in the frequency or severity of your headaches.
When you go in to see your doctor, they’ll conduct a physical exam, and ask about your medical history and any symptoms you may be experiencing.
You can prepare for this by having answers to the following:
- When did the pain start?
- What other symptoms are you experiencing?
- Is the headache the first symptom?
- How often are you experiencing the headaches? Are they a daily occurrence?
- Do you have a family history of headaches, migraines, or other relevant conditions?
- Do you notice any obvious triggers?
Your doctor will likely run different tests to give you a definitive diagnosis. The tests they may run include:
- blood tests, to look for infections of the spinal cord or brain, toxins, or blood vessel problems
- cranial CT scans, to get a cross-sectional view of your brain, which can help diagnose infections, tumors, bleeding in your brain, and brain damage.
- head MRI scans, to reveal detailed images of blood vessels and your brain including abnormalities in your brain and nervous system, bleeding in your brain, strokes, problems with blood vessels, and infections.
There are a few ways to relieve headaches quickly.
Tips for quick relief
- apply a warm compress to the back of the neck
- take a warm shower
- improve your posture to relieve tension from the head, neck, and shoulders
- leave the room and go to a new environment, especially if lights, sounds, or smells are causing the headache or eye strain
- take a quick nap, which can help relieve fatigue headaches
- loosen your hair, if it’s up in a ponytail, braid, or bun
- drink more water to avoid dehydration
You can also take OTC pain relievers or medications such as ibuprofen (Advil). But avoid relying on these medications if you have chronic headaches.
Physical therapy is another way to treat tension headaches or cervicogenic headaches, which result from neck problems. Muscle tension in your neck can lead to stiffness and press on the nerves that cause pain. A physical therapist may help manipulate the area and teach you stretches to relax tight muscles and exercises that provide long-term relief when done faithfully.
There are different types of headaches that cause pain on only one side of your head or face. Many have benign causes and will go away on their own. Lifestyle changes such as managing your posture, drinking more water, or resting your eyes may help.
Make an appointment with your doctor if your headaches interfere with your daily life. Only a doctor can diagnose the cause of your headaches and rule out more serious conditions. Your doctor can also recommend ways to manage pain and prevent future headaches.