What is an ‘afternoon headache’?

An afternoon headache is basically the same as any other type of headache. It’s a pain in part or all of your head. The only thing that’s different is the timing.

Headaches that start in the afternoon are often triggered by something that happened during the day, like muscle tension from working at a desk.

They usually aren’t serious and will fade by evening. In rare cases, intense or persistent pain could be a sign of something more severe.

Keep reading to learn more about the potential causes, how to find relief, and when to see your doctor.

The most likely cause of your afternoon head pain is a tension headache. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache.

Up to 75 percent of adults experience tension headaches from time to time. About 3 percent of people get them often.

Women are twice as likely as men to get tension headaches.

Feels like: A tight band squeezing around your head and tenderness in your scalp. You’ll feel pain on both sides of your head.

Caused or triggered by: Stress, most commonly. Tight muscles in the back of your neck and scalp might be involved. It’s possible that people who get tension headaches are more sensitive to pain.

Cluster headaches are an uncommon cause of afternoon headaches. Less than 1 percent of people experience them.

These intensely painful headaches cause extreme pain around the eye on one side of the head. They come in waves of attacks called clusters.

Each cluster may last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Afterward, you’ll experience a headache-free period (remission).

Remission is just as unpredictable and could last anywhere from few months to a few years.

You’re more likely to get cluster headaches if:

  • you have a family history of these headaches
  • you’re male
  • you’re 20 to 50 years old
  • you smoke or drink alcohol

Feels like:A severe, stabbing pain on one side of your head. The pain can spread to other parts of your head, and to your neck and shoulders.

Other symptoms include:

  • red, teary eye on the side of the headache pain
  • stuffed, runny nose
  • sweating of the face
  • pale skin
  • drooping eyelid

Caused or triggered by: Doctors don’t know exactly what causes cluster headaches. Alcohol and certain heart disease medications can sometimes set off the pain.

SIH is also known as a low-pressure headache. The condition is rare, affecting only 1 in 50,000 people.

It’s most likely to start in your 30s or 40s. Women are twice as likely to get it as men. SIH occurs more often in people who have weak connective tissue.

One type of SIH headache starts in the late morning or afternoon and gets worse throughout the day.

Feels like: Pain in the back of your head and sometimes your neck. The pain can be on one or both sides of your head, and it may be severe. It gets worse when you stand or sit up, and improves when you lie down.

These activities can make the pain worse:

  • sneezing or coughing
  • straining during a bowel movement
  • exercising
  • bending over
  • having sex

Other symptoms include:

  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • nausea or vomiting
  • ringing in your ears or muffled hearing
  • dizziness
  • pain in your back or chest
  • double vision

Caused or triggered by: Spinal fluid cushions your brain so it doesn’t bang against your skull when you move. A leak in spinal fluid causes a low-pressure headache.

Leaking fluid may be caused by:

  • a defect in the dura, the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
  • damage to the dura from spinal surgery or a lumbar puncture
  • a shunt that drains too much fluid

Sometimes there isn’t any obvious cause for the spinal fluid leak.

An intense headache that doesn’t go away could make you wonder whether you have a brain tumor. In reality, headaches are rarely signs of a brain tumor.

Afternoon headaches are especially unlikely to be caused by a tumor. Tumor-related headaches can happen at any time of day. They also get more frequent and severe over time, and cause other symptoms.

You may also experience:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • blurred or double vision
  • hearing problems
  • trouble speaking
  • confusion
  • numbness or lack of movement in an arm or leg
  • personality changes

Regardless of what caused your headache, your goal is to get relief. Here are a few things you can do to ease the pain.

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) are good for easing everyday headache pain. Some pain relievers combine aspirin or acetaminophen with caffeine (Excedrin Headache). These products may be more effective for some people.

Apply an ice pack. Hold an ice pack to your head or neck for about 15 minutes at a time to relieve a tension headache.

Try heat. If stiff muscles caused your pain, a warm compress or heating pad might work better than ice.

Sit up straight. Slumping over your desk all day tenses the muscles in your neck, which could lead to a tension headache.

Try to relax. Relieve the stress that makes your muscles tense and your head hurt by practicing meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and other relaxation techniques.

Get a massage. Rubbing tight muscles not only feels good, but it’s also a potent stress-buster.

Consider acupuncture. This practice uses thin needles to stimulate various pressure points around your body. Research finds that in people with chronic tension headaches, acupuncture treatments can cut the number of headaches in half. Results last for at least six months.

Avoid beer, wine, and liquor. Drinking alcohol can trigger cluster headaches during an attack.

Practice headache prevention. Take antidepressants, blood pressure medications, or anti-seizure drugs daily to prevent headaches.

Take a prescription pain reliever. If you often get headaches in the afternoon, your doctor can prescribe a stronger pain reliever like indomethacin (Indocin) or naproxen (Naprosyn). Triptans work well on cluster headaches.

Afternoon headaches usually aren’t serious. You should be able to treat most of them yourself. But sometimes, they can signal a more serious problem.

Call your doctor or go to an emergency room if:

  • The pain feels like the worst headache of your life.
  • Headaches come more often or become more painful.
  • The headaches started after a blow to the head.

You should also see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms with your headache:

  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • vision loss
  • double vision
  • seizures
  • numbness in an arm or leg
  • loss of consciousness