Today, it is estimated that over half of the world’s population experiences headaches regularly. But not all headaches are equal.
Some, such as the ones you may experience if you are hungover, are dehydrated or have tense muscles, are nothing more than a temporary nuisance that will go away with some at-home care. However, in some other cases, a headache may be a symptom of an underlying, more severe condition that requires medical attention.
If you have been experiencing throbbing pain in your head or face, it is important to seek an accurate diagnosis and look for treatments that don’t involve taking medications long term. Here’s where Neurofunctional Pain Management can help.
In this guide, we’ll explore the impact of throbbing headaches and how the Neuragenex approach can help. Let’s dive in.
Throbbing pain is a common symptom associated with a range of headache types. It manifests itself as a rhythmic pulsing, beating, or pounding sensation that may affect just a part of the head or the whole head.
Throbbing headaches are commonly caused by primary headaches (such as migraines) or secondary conditions (like headaches caused by caffeine withdrawal). Rarely, throbbing sensations may be caused by potentially life-threatening conditions such as blocked blood vessels or bleeding in the brain (stroke).
The reasons why conditions like migraines cause pain are not well understood. However, research published in 2023 shows that painful sensations may be due to the release of chemicals that narrow blood vessels in the brain, as well as the ongoing activation of a nerve located on the side of the face (the trigeminal nerve). The throbbing nature of pain may also be caused by blood vessels – which pulsate at the same rhythm as the heart – when they stimulate nearby pain-transmitting nerve cells.
The intensity, frequency, and location of throbbing sensations may vary, but they usually spread from the head through the face, ears, necks, and shoulders, and can last up to 72 hours. According to a study published in Nature, women are two to three times more likely than men to experience headaches and migraines.
If you are experiencing chronic head pain, or the throbbing sensations are strong enough to interfere with your daily life, you should seek an accurate diagnosis of your condition. Below is all you need to know.
Where In The Head Does It Hurt?
When it comes down to diagnosing the cause and nature of your throbbing headache, the location of the painful sensations may offer important insights that should not be overlooked.
Below, we’ll look at the possible causes of throbbing headaches based on where it hurts:
- Back of head: If you are experiencing sharp, aching, or throbbing pain at the back or base of the head, you may have occipital neuralgia. This condition arises from damage to the nerves that connect the spinal cord to the scalp, and it can also cause pain behind the eyes or painful sensations that spread across the scalp.
- Top of head: Although pain localized at the top of the head may be a symptom of migraines, throbbing sensations in this area may also be caused by stress, poor posture, and dehydration. Pay attention to other symptoms – such as high sensitivity to light and sound – to have a better understanding of what’s causing your headache.
- Left or right side: Some types of headaches, like migraines or hemicrania continua, cause a throbbing sensation in just one side of the head.
- Behind eyes: Pain behind the eye that lasts for months, comes on suddenly or occurs in clusters may be a symptom of cluster headaches. These headaches can last between 15 minutes and three hours, and cause pain that spreads through the cheeks, temples, and jaws.
- Temples: Throbbing pain in your temple, accompanied by tenderness, may be a symptom of temporal arteritis, a condition that occurs when the arteries on the side of the head become swollen and inhibit blood flow. Other causes of temporal pain include tension headaches, migraines, and temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ).
- Headache with neck pain: Headaches that occur due to tense muscles and poor posture can cause throbbing sensations, which are often accompanied by neck pain and stiffness.
Throbbing sensations may occur alongside other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or smell, mood disturbances, scalp tenderness, pain when chewing, and restlessness.
As we are about to see, throbbing pain in the head may stem from a wide range of causes. Depending on what’s causing your headache, throbbing pain can be classified as primary or secondary:
- Primary headaches are those in which the pain is, in itself, the condition. They don’t have another underlying cause and can be either chronic (when they happen more than 15 times a month) or episodic (if they occur less than 15 times each month).
- Secondary headaches are caused by external factors or underlying health conditions.
Secondary throbbing headaches can be due to a number of reasons, including:
- High levels of stress
- Lack of sleep
- Exposure to certain foods and allergies
- Exposure to excess sunlight
- Seasonal allergies
- Head injuries
- Hormonal fluctuations (e.g. during pregnancy or menstrual cycle)
- Withdrawal from caffeine
- Excessive physical activity
- Medication overuse
Conditions That May Cause A Throbbing Headache
Given that throbbing pain in the head can be primary or secondary, it is important to understand what may cause it. For example, if painful sensations are a symptom of migraines or cluster headaches, you’ll need an adequate treatment plan – which is different from the care you may need if your throbbing pain is a result of caffeine withdrawal.
In the sections below, we’ll look at both the primary and secondary causes of throbbing pain in the head.
Chronic Headaches And Migraines
Migraines are classified as primary headaches. However, there is a lot more to migraine than simply pain affecting the head: these headaches are a neurological disorder that occurs due to abnormal chemical reactions and pathways in the brain.
Migraines are characterized by severe facial pain, which is localized in one side of the head or face. Throbbing sensations are also often accompanied by symptoms like vomiting, nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to external stimuli (e.g. light and sound), and temporarily inhibited cognitive function.
Often triggered by external factors like stress, weather changes, and loud noises, migraines tend to be recurring and can happen multiple times a month. Today, they are estimated to affect over 12% of the population, and can profoundly impact a person’s personal and professional life.
Tension headaches are a type of primary headache that causes a dull pain, usually spreading across both sides of the head. These types of headaches are often caused by stress, tiredness, poor posture, or tense muscles in the neck and at the base of the skull. They can either be chronic (if they occur multiple times a week) or episodic.
Other symptoms associated with tension headaches include:
- Pain that spreads to the forehead
- Painful sensations in the neck and back of the head
- Feeling that your head is being pressed
Although these headaches may resolve themselves in a matter of hours, if they are recurring, they may indicate a more serious underlying problem.
Cluster headaches are primary headaches characterized by severe, throbbing pain localized around or behind one eye. The pain can also affect one side of the head, ears, forehead, eyes, and jaw. This type of headache derives from dysfunction of the trigeminal nerve, which is a nerve that spreads across the side of the face and is responsible for transmitting signals to the brain relating to sensations and muscle movements.
The symptoms of cluster headaches are not specific to this condition, and they tend to overlap those of other headaches. However, cluster headaches have unique characteristics, such as:
- They occur frequently, usually one to eight times a day
- Each headache attack is short, usually lasting between 15 minutes and 3 hours
- The pain only affects one side of the face
- The headaches tend to occur at the same time each day, most often at nighttime
Some secondary disorders – or underlying conditions and external factors – may also be at the roots of throbbing pain in the face. These include:
- Hangovers: Hangovers are one of the side effects of drinking too much alcohol, and they are characterized by symptoms like tiredness, diarrhea, loss of appetite, nausea, and sensitivity to light or sounds. They also cause throbbing headaches, which derive from the widening and irritating effect of alcohol on blood vessels in and around the brain. These symptoms usually begin within 12 hours of drinking alcohol and can last up to three days. It is possible to ease these symptoms by drinking liquids, avoiding alcohol, and taking pain relievers.
- Caffeine withdrawal: The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include throbbing headaches, low levels of energy, sleepiness, depressed mood, nausea, and trouble concentrating. If you regularly consume caffeine (two cups a day for more than two weeks), you are likely to experience these symptoms when you stop eating or drinking products with caffeine. These symptoms can last between two and nine days.
- Giant cell arteritis (GCA): GCA is a type of vasculitis, a condition that occurs when the blood vessels in the head and the neck become inflamed or swollen. Commonly seen in adults over the age of 50, this condition also causes symptoms like scalp tenderness, jaw pain, and vision problems like vision loss and double vision. A major symptom of GCA is headache, which occurs as throbbing pain localized around both temples. If left unaddressed, GCA can lead to severe complications, including blindness.
Complications That May Come With A Throbbing Headache
When caused by caffeine withdrawal or alcohol consumption, throbbing headaches are a temporary nuisance. However, in some cases, this form of pain can become acute or chronic. When this happens, you may experience a range of complications.
Firstly, chronic headaches and recurring migraines can get in the way of your daily life. For example, patients with migraines miss nearly five days of work annually due to their condition and waste a further 11 days due to reduced productivity. The higher healthcare costs involved with treating recurring headaches also increase the risk of suffering from mental health problems such as stress and anxiety.
When headaches become a lifelong condition, they can also lead to constant discomfort and neck disability and increase the risk of potentially life-threatening complications like migraine-triggered infarction and seizures. Let’s look at these below.
Migraine and epilepsy share similar mechanisms, which lead to abnormal waves of electrical activity in the brain. The surge of electrical activity can cause seizures, as well as a range of symptoms, such as unusual sensations, mood swings, and sensitivity to external stimuli.
In particular, migraine-triggered seizures are brought on during the changes in brain activity that occur during the “aura” phase of a migraine. The aura phase is characterized by abnormal sensations, feelings of “deja vu”, and changes in vision, smell, and taste, and it usually works as a premonitory sign of an impending attack.
Migrainous infarction occurs when you have an ischemic stroke during the “aura” phase of a migraine attack. Similarly to other types of stroke, migraine infarction happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off. During the development of a migraine attack, a stroke may be brought on by changes in blood vessel activity and blood pressure.
Although this complication is rare, it is important to keep in mind that those with a diagnosis of migraine are 1.5 times more at risk of developing conditions like stroke, myocardial infarction, and angina.
When To See A Doctor For Your Headache
Not all throbbing headaches require medical attention. For example, if you are just riding out a hangover, you may ease your symptoms by drinking plenty of fluids and resting, as necessary.
However, in some cases, throbbing headaches may be a sign of a chronic or life-threatening condition, such as recurring migraines or brain tumors. Being able to identify the signs of a severe underlying condition can help you find adequate treatments without delay.
Let’s look at these telltale signs below:
- Changing headache patterns: If you have a stable history of headaches, sudden changes in the pattern, nature, or location of your symptoms may indicate the development of a serious condition.
- Pregnancy/postpartum: You should see your doctor if you experience throbbing headaches and are pregnant or have just given birth. Although, in most cases, headaches are not cause for concern, sometimes they may indicate preeclampsia, a serious condition that occurs within 48 hours to seven days after delivery. This condition can be life-threatening.
- Weakened immune system: Headaches sometimes occur due to inflammation (as in the case of vasculitis), which is part of the immune response. If you have a weakened immune system or suffer from autoimmune conditions, headaches caused by inflammation of blood vessels can develop into serious complications.
- Older patients: If you are over 50, your risk of developing severe conditions like temporal arteritis increases. Regular checkups, especially if you have throbbing headaches, can prevent severe complications. You should also see your doctor if you are over 65 and experiencing a type of headache that you’ve never experienced before.
- Headache triggered by sneezing, coughing, or exercising: Headaches triggered by reflexes like sneezing or coughing can indicate problems with the brain, spine, or other structures around the skull. Exercise can cause veins and arteries to expand, which can lead to headaches. These may be of concern if you suffer from cardiovascular problems and high blood pressure.
- Rebound headaches from regular painkiller use: Taking painkillers chronically can lead to a whole host of complications, including rebound headaches. This is especially true if you take painkillers for headache disorders such as migraines.
When To Seek Emergency Assistance For Your Headache
Above, we have explored instances when you should see a doctor to identify an underlying condition that may be at the root of the throbbing pain in your head. But sometimes, this symptom may indicate a life-threatening condition that needs emergency assistance.
Below, we’ll look at when you should call 911 right away.
Sudden Headache Growing Severe
If changes in the pattern of your headache are an orange flag that there may be complications, experiencing a headache that develops suddenly and becomes severe in minutes or seconds is a red flag that should not be left unaddressed.
Throbbing pain that becomes excruciatingly intense within moments may indicate life-threatening conditions like aneurysm, meningitis, or stroke.
Headache After Injury
Experiencing headaches after an injury – such as a blow to the head – may be a symptom of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussions. Not only can these headaches become recurring and start interfering with your daily life, but they may also cause you to overlook a traumatic injury, which requires specialized medical care.
Other symptoms of concussions include vomiting and nausea, loss of consciousness, headaches that increase in severity over time, blood draining from the nose or ears, ringing in the ears, behavioral changes, and weakness in the arms and legs.
Headache With Additional Symptoms
When your headaches occur alongside other symptoms, they may indicate life-threatening underlying conditions. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Stiff neck: A stiff neck, especially when accompanied by fever or headaches, may indicate traumatic injury, as well as meningitis, infections, or tumors.
- Red eye: Painful red eyes that occur alongside fever, blurred vision, swelling, and discharge may be symptoms of high blood pressure, aneurysm, or infection.
- Seizures: If you are experiencing seizures alongside migraines or headaches, you should consult your doctor. Not only these may be a sign of epilepsy, but they can put your life at risk if they are uncontrolled and occur while driving or operating other machinery.
- Fainting: Fainting and dizziness that occur alongside headaches are symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, and they may be related to traumatic brain injury. They may also lead to fainting spells, which occur when not enough oxygen reaches the brain. Although these episodes aren’t always life-threatening, they could indicate a problem with your heart (e.g. arrhythmia) or put you at risk if they occur while you are operating machinery.
- Signs of stroke: Severe headaches may be a sign of stroke, especially if they occur alongside numbness and weakness in the face, legs, or arms, trouble with walking and balance, vision loss, confusion, and dizziness.
How Throbbing Headaches Are Treated With Conventional Medicines
Throbbing headaches are addressed using one or more lines of treatment, depending on what’s causing the pain.
A specialist will use a range of diagnostic tests to determine what’s causing your throbbing pain. These include:
- A review of your symptoms and medical history
- An assessment of your habits and lifestyle, including alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Neurological examinations
- Imaging tests like MRI
- Blood tests like erythrocyte sedimentation rate
- Temporal artery biopsy (if giant cell arteritis is suspected)
Before choosing a treatment program, it is important to visit a specialist and obtain an accurate diagnosis. This will ensure that no serious underlying condition will go untreated, and that you are making the best choice for your health.
Below, we’ll look at the treatments commonly prescribed for throbbing headaches.
Most cases of occasional throbbing pain in the head can be treated at home with a few care strategies. These include:
- Ice: The application of cold packs on painful areas, usually coupled with rest, can help reduce blood pressure and reduce swelling and inflammation, thus easing pain.
- Over-the-counter painkillers: OTC medications, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, can help relieve pain during flare-ups in the short term.
- Avoiding lifestyle triggers: Lifestyle modifications can help you reduce the risk of throbbing pain and shorten the duration of attacks. These include avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and preventing stressors like sleep deprivation, strong smells, and hunger.
These strategies can help if, for example, your headache is caused by caffeine withdrawal. In this case, the cause of the pain will resolve itself in a few days, and at-home care can help you manage the pain until the symptoms ease down.
- A word of caution: If your headache is caused by alcohol consumption or hangover, you should not take Tylenol. This is because, when combined with alcohol, the active ingredient in Tylenol (acetaminophen) can lead to liver damage.
Sometimes, prescription medications may be recommended to ease severe pain, especially when headaches begin to interfere with your life.
In most cases, headache treatments aim to ease symptoms (known as “rescue” medications) and prevent future attacks. Depending on the prescription, you may be instructed to take medications daily or only during a headache.
Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for throbbing pain in the head include:
- Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are the synthetic version of cortisol, a chemical that is naturally produced by the body and which is responsible for lowering inflammation and inhibiting pain. Corticosteroids can provide longer-lasting relief from pain, but they come with severe side effects such as weight gain, sleep disorders, excessive sweating, and indigestion.
- Triptan: Triptans work by binding with the docking sites that certain brain chemicals (like serotonin) bind to. This prevents the painful expansion of blood vessels driven by serotonin, which may help stop ongoing migraines. Triptans are associated with side effects like dizziness, muscle weakness, skin reactions, and feeling heavy in the face, chest, arms, or legs.
Other medications used for throbbing headaches include anti-seizure medications, Botox injections, and antidepressants.
How Neuragenex Treats Throbbing Pain In The Head
Today, medications are the go-to treatment option for addressing headaches – and 20-40% of those with chronic headaches take pain medications regularly to manage their pain. Nonetheless, medications come with severe side effects, which range from having an increased risk of heart attack to stomach ulcers and addiction.
Even more worryingly, medications don’t do much more than simply ease pain. This means that, if your headaches are caused by a more underlying condition, a severe health problem may go undetected or untreated.
Fortunately, taking medications for days on end is no longer the only option to manage your condition. Thanks to Neurofunctional Pain Management – the revolutionary approach pioneered by Neuragenex – you can tackle the root of your pain and restore your health without drugs, surgery, or chiropractic interventions.
Here are the pillars of Neurofunctional Pain Management.
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Get Relief From Throbbing Headaches
Throbbing pain in the head is extremely common – but should not be considered a normal part of life. If you are experiencing this condition, it is important to look beyond traditional treatments like pain medications to address the real cause of your pain and restore your health.
That’s where the whole-person, non-drug, and non-invasive approach developed by Neuragenex comes in. Discover how Neurofunctional Pain Management can help you win your battle against chronic pain.
You can manage the throbbing pain in your head. Learn more about how Neuragenex treats chronic headaches and migraines today!