Sharp Head Pain? The common, rare and serious causes. Feel safe. (2023)

Sharp Head Pain? The common, rare and serious causes. Feel safe. (1)

Usually Ice-Pick Headaches

Sharp head pain happens to 2% of people each year.

The most common cause of sharp head painis called ‘Ice-Pick Headache’.

Nothing provokes these sharp headaches and they are away as quick as they came. Sometimes there is a mild lingering dull sensation afterwards for a few minutes.

Your first step is knowing that you are safe. Then you can do whatever it takes to get control. I’ve written a guide to help you get in control of headaches.

4 meanings of Sharp Head Pain

The phrase ‘sharp head pain’ can mean different things to different people – here’s 4 meanings I encounter in my clinics.

  1. Stabbing or Knife-like pain

    Sharp may mean a stabbing pain in the head, like someone has taken a knife or needle and rammed it into the skull. An example is Ice-Pick Headache.

  2. Sudden and Severe Some people say ‘sharp pain’ but describea sudden severe headachenot a sensation ofbeing struck with a knife or needle. A sudden severe headache requires urgent medical attention, whereas Ice-Pick Headache does not.
  3. Bad or Intense

    The other meaning of sharp that people use is to mean an intense bad headache.

    If youuse “sharp” to mean a severeheadache usually the problem is Migraine Headaches.

Causes of Knife-like Sharp Head Pain

Sharp Head Pains (Knife-like)

These conditions areconfused with Ice-Pick Headaches:

  • Cervicogenic Headache:Most people with cervicogenic headache havea pressure or throbbing sensation on one side of the head. Brief stabs of pain are common in people with Cervicogenic Headache.
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia:This sudden stabbing or shooting pain affects yourcheek or jaw. Touch or movement trigger this intense sharp head pain. The pain is in the eye or forehead in very few cases. The pain is brief, and Carbamazepine is the drug of choice.

  • Trigeminal Autonomic Headaches: These headaches are very brief – often sharp – head pains accompanied by ‘autonomic activation’. Autonomic Activation means watering of the eye, a stuffy nose, reddening of the white of the eye, or swelling around the eye or face. Most of these headaches respond very well to strong anti-inflammatories such as Indometacin.

  • Cluster Headache

    People with Cluster Headache get sharp head pains. These can occur just as a Cluster Headache is starting, during an attack and can occur between attacks. A Cluster Headache is a monstrous pain in or around one eye, accompanied by ‘Autonomic Activation’. The drugs that work best are High Flow Oxygen, Subcutaneous Sumatriptan and Verapamil.

  • Paroxysmal Hemicrania:These are also sharp eye pains, although people will describe claw-like sharp pain, boring and throbbing sensations. An attack lasts 2-30 minutes. Roughly half of people pace the floor like people with cluster headache do. Some people with Paroxysmal Hemicrania lie still like people with Migraine. This headache responds to strong anti-inflammatories – classically Indometacin.
  • SUNCT Syndrome: S = Sudden, U = Unilateral (one-sided), N = Neuralgiform headache, C = Conjunctival injection (reddening of the white of the eye), T = Tears. Each individual pain spike in SUNCT last from 5 seconds to 5 minutes. Pain is excruciating, shock-like, pricking, piercing or burning.

Sharp HeadPains can come in runs lasting up to 20 minutes.There are also people who will have up to 3 hours of moderate background pain with very frequent spikes of pain on top of this. SUNCT Syndrome is difficult to treat. Lamotrigine has a small chance of reducingthe pain of SUNCT.

  • Paroxysmal Extreme Pain Syndrome (PEPS)

    PEPS can cause bouts of severe sharp eye pain. In PEPS there are also bouts of jaw or rectal pain. Flushing of the skin of face or bottom occurs. Paroxysmal Extreme Pain Syndromeruns in families due to a problem with the Sodium Ion Channel Gene (SCN9A).

  • Nummular Headache

    This causes pain in a localised area of the scalp (“nummular” means coin).

    The pain can be dull, and pressure-like, which leads to a mis-diagnosis of tension-headache. Inside this area of dull headache,sharp head pains occur. The scalp istender at the site of pain, and asmall circular area of hair losscan appear in the painful area. Some people who have Shingles (Herpes Zoster Reactivation) affecting the scalp experience nummular headaches.

Causes of Shooting Type Sharp Head Pain

Neuralgia is another word for Shooting Sharp Head Pains.

Sharp Shooting Pains in the Head affect any of thenamed nerves in the head.

The worst and most common disorder is Trigeminal Neuralgia.

The other neuralgias are:

  • Occipital Neuralgia – shooting pain in the back of the head
  • Supra-orbital Neuralgia – shooting pains above one eye – sometimes due to a tight pair of goggles or helmet.
  • Auriculotemporal Neuralgia – shooting pains in front of the ear and up the side of the head
  • Nervus Intermedius Neuralgia – a deep shooting pain inside the ear or back of throat
  • Sphenopalatine Neuralgia – shooting pain in the back of the throat
  • Infra-orbital Neuralgia – shooting pain under one eye
  • Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia – severe shooting pain in the throat provoked by swallowing
  • Superior Laryngeal Neuralgia – severe shooting throat pain
  • Naso-ciliary Neuralgia – sharp pain over the tip of the nose
  • Third Occipital Neuralgia – sharp pains in the back of head and top of neck

Sharp Head Pain Provoked by Cough, Exercise, Sleep, Sex or Cold Temperature

Sometimes “sharp pain” describesa pain provoked by a particular action.

Ice-Pick Headaches are unprovoked. Here are the provoked sharp head pains:

  1. Cough Headache

    This headache is exclusively provoked by coughing. The pain is sharp, bursting or stabbing and affects both sides of the head. Chiari Malformation is the most common cause found.

  2. Exertional Headache

    Exertional Headache is described as an explosive or pulsating headache. However it may be described as “sharp”.

    Sinus disease, Subarachnoid Haemorrhage and raised intracranial pressure are causes of exertional headache. Angina can cause an exercise induced headache called Cardiac Cephalalgia.

    However, most people with exertional headache do not have acause identified.

    Always investigate an Exertional Headache – ideally with an MRI of Head.

  3. Hypnic Headache

    HypnicHeadache wakens you from sleep. Going to bed, you areis pain free, only to bewoken at the same time every night. The pain of Hypnic Headache isintense, diffuse and lasts anything from 30 to 180 minutes.

    If youfall asleep after an episode of Hypnic Headache you maybe woken again later by another attack.

    Lithium Carbonate is the drug of choice 70% responding. Caffeine helps many people withHypnic Headaches.

  4. Headaches During Sex

    Headaches during sex build up as sexual oftendescribed as a sharp head pain. A serious cause such as subarachnoid haemorrhage needs to be ruled out after a first episode of orgasmic headache.

    The most common cause is Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome (RCVS), which causes bouts of painful spasm of arteries in the brain. RCVS takes several weeks or months to resolve.

  5. Brain Freeze

Eating ice-cream or an iced drink induces intense sharphead pain as every school child knows.

The technical term is ‘cold-stimulus headache’ which is more common in people with migraine.

What to do about Sharp Head Pain

In most cases you have Ice-Pick Headaches, and in the background lurks Migraine, Tension-Type Headache or Cluster Headache. If you have any of these three headaches you manage these headaches in a standard manner and the sharp head pains usually reduce.

If you are freefrom rarer headaches, and do not suffer Migraine, Tension-Type Headache or Cluster Headache, it is likely you haveIce-Pick Headache. At worst you may need strong painkillers prescribed by your doctor.

If you struggle with headaches you need to know that you are safe– it’s your first step to getting control.

Once you know you are safe do whatever you can to get control of headaches.

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