Throbbing Headache

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What is a throbbing headache?

A throbbing headache is a sensation of pounding, pulsating, rhythmic, or explosive pressure in the head. It can affect all or just a portion of your head. The sensation of pain is subjective, meaning that each person experiences it differently. Some people may describe a throbbing headache as also being sharp, dull, burning or squeezing in nature.

Throbbing headaches are very common and can affect people of any age group or population. Throbbing headaches are often associated with migraine headaches, caffeine withdrawal, and hangovers. However, you may also feel a throbbing headache with a wide variety of other conditions, such as a stress headache, cluster headache, or inflammation of the sinuses (sinusitis). In some cases, a throbbing headache may be caused by serious conditions, such as stroke, meningitis, a brain mass (tumor), or bleeding in the brain from a head injury.

Ongoing throbbing headaches that are severe or recur, such as migraine or cluster headaches, can often be managed successfully with regular medical care and by following your treatment plan.

Seek prompt medical care for throbbing headaches that are unexplained, persistent, recurring, or occurring with sinus congestion or fever.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, experience a head injury or have an unexplained or sudden severe headache, change in vision or level of alertness, passing out, paralysis, difficulty speaking, or a seizure.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for infants and young children who are unable to communicate and experience a head injury or trauma in which the head is shaken. Symptoms may include vomiting with drowsiness or lethargy, or a bulging soft spot on top of the head (fontanel).

What other symptoms might occur with a throbbing headache?

Throbbing headaches can be accompanied by other symptoms. These symptoms may vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition; your age; and other factors. Other symptoms may include other nervous system symptoms, or symptoms involving other body systems, such as the digestive system. For example, nausea, vomiting, visual changes, or other sensory changes may accompany a migraine headache.

Migraine headaches are often confused with sinus headaches. Your doctor will most likely be able to distinguish migraine from sinus headaches based on your symptoms and medical history.

Symptoms that might accompany a throbbing headache include:

  • Aura, which is a visual disturbance and other sensory change occurring in some people just before a migraine headache starts

  • Earache or inability to pop your ears

  • Facial pain or pressure, often due to a sinus infection (sinusitis)

  • Light-headedness

  • Sensitivity to light or noise, which is common to migraine headache

  • Sudden, overwhelming fatigue and need to lie down in a dark, quiet room to sleep. This is also common with migraine headaches.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, a throbbing headache may occur with other symptoms that can indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have a head injury or have any of these symptoms:

  • Decreased consciousness, lethargy, or passing out

  • Memory loss, paralysis, slurred or garbled speech, or inability to speak

  • Projectile vomiting

  • Seizure or convulsion

  • Sudden bruising and swelling around the eyes

  • Sudden changes or problems with vision

  • Worst headache of your life

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition in infants or toddlers include:

  • Bulging of the soft spot on top of the head (fontanel)

  • Drowsiness or lethargy

  • Not feeding or responding normally

  • Projectile vomiting

What causes a throbbing headache?

A throbbing headache can be caused by a wide variety of mild to serious injuries, diseases or conditions.

Common causes of a throbbing headache

Common causes of a throbbing headache include:

  • Allergies

  • Caffeine withdrawal

  • Cluster headache

  • Common cold and other upper respiratory infections

  • Ear infections

  • Hangover

  • Low blood sugar

  • Menstrual or hormonal headache

  • Migraine headache

  • Mild dehydration

  • Muscle tension in the neck, jaw or shoulders, which can cause tension headache

  • Sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses)

Serious or life-threatening conditions that cause a throbbing headache

Throbbing headaches can also be caused by serious conditions that should immediately be evaluated in an emergency setting. These serious causes include:

  • Brain aneurysm (weak area in a brain blood vessel that bulges and can rupture and bleed)

  • Brain hemorrhage or hematoma (bleeding in the brain due to such causes as head trauma, stroke, or taking blood thinners)

  • Brain tumor causing pressure within the head

  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain commonly due to infection)

  • Head injury or shaking of an infant’s head

  • Hydrocephalus (high levels of fluid in the brain)

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Intracranial hypertension (abnormally high pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid in the skull)

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

  • Seizure disorder

  • Temporal arteritis (inflammation of blood vessels in the head)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a throbbing headache

A throbbing headache can be caused by a mild condition or it may signal a serious health concern. To diagnose and treat your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare provider may ask you several questions related to your headache including:

  • In what part of the head do you feel pain or discomfort? Describe the pain.

  • How long have you had the pain or discomfort?

  • Have you experienced any recent head injury or trauma?

  • Have you recently had symptoms of an infection, such as a fever?

  • What other symptoms do you have?

  • Provide your full medical history, including all medical conditions, surgeries and treatments, family history, and a complete list of the prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, and herbal products that you take.

What are the potential complications of a throbbing headache?

The potential complications of a throbbing headache vary depending on the underlying cause. Because a feeling of throbbing in the head may be due to serious or life-threatening conditions, failure to seek treatment could result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan you and your healthcare provider develop specifically for you will minimize the risk of complications including:

  • Coma

  • Depression

  • Disability and poor quality of life due to chronic headaches

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent brain damage

  • Respiratory arrest

  • Seizures

  • Stroke

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Hydrocephalus Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
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  4. Migraine Headache. JAMA Patient Page.
  5. NINDS Migraine Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.