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Common headache types by location

Man suffering from headache due to eye pain

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What your headache location means

There's a very complex network of nerves and blood vessels in your head, neck and face. Even the smallest problem with them can lead to a headache. If you can pinpoint the location of your pain, it could help you figure out what's causing your headache.

Some headaches cause pain behind your eyes or across your forehead, while others might only hurt on the left or right side of your head.

Headache behind the eyes

One headache location is pain directly behind your eyes. You might feel pain along the top of your eye or much farther back, in the very back of your eye socket.

Causes of headaches behind the eyes

Some possible causes:

  • Migraine

  • Eye strain

  • Sinus infection

  • Cluster headache

  • Graves' disease

  • Optic neuritis

Migraines can cause a headache behind your eyes, but most people only feel pain behind one eye. They can also make you feel sick to your stomach and sensitive to light.

Around one in eight Americans gets migraines or has gotten them before. People usually get a headache behind their left eye or right eye. It's rare to get them behind both eyes.

Some people see unusual effects in their vision before the headache starts. This is called a migraine aura. It can also be called a "visual migraine," but doctors don't use that term very much anymore.

LEARN MORE: What is an ocular migraine?

Eye strain can happen when you overwork your eyes. You might feel it when you've been looking at a digital screen or small print for a while without a break.

It can sometimes trigger a migraine or tension headache, but not always.

Eye strain can make the area behind your eyes feel sore or uncomfortable. The feeling should get better after you take a break and let your eyes rest. But this might not help as much if it triggered another kind of headache.

Some eye strain is caused or made worse by a common problem with your eyesight, such as farsightedness, nearsightedness or presbyopia (age-related farsightedness). New glasses, contact lenses or reading glasses should help you feel better.

An eye doctor will give you an up-to-date vision prescription after a comprehensive eye exam.

Sinus infections happen when fluid builds up in the small pockets inside your head (sinuses) and gets infected. Viruses and bacteria can both cause them.

Some infections cause pain that feels like a headache behind or between your eyes. They can hurt on other parts of your head and face, too. The pain should stop once the infection goes away.

Sinus headaches are rarer than many people think. Most of the time, they're actually migraines in disguise. One study found that nearly 9 in 10 patients complaining of sinus headaches were actually having migraines.

Cluster headaches are sudden bursts of pain around or behind one eye. They aren't very common.

A cluster headache is usually most painful 10 to 15 minutes after it starts. Most headaches last between one and three hours.

You might also notice eye redness, drooping eyelids or sweat on your forehead.

Graves' disease happens when your immune system attacks the thyroid gland in your neck by mistake. This makes your thyroid produce too much thyroid hormone.

About a third of people get thyroid eye disease as a result. It can make the eye sockets swell behind the eyes and cause the eyes to bulge.

Over time, swelling can lead to headaches that feel like they're inside or behind your eye. The pain might get worse when you move your eyes.

Thyroid eye disease can cause other eye symptoms too, such as dry eyes, light sensitivity or double vision. It can also cause glaucoma and optic atrophy (damage to the optic nerve).

Optic neuritis is swelling or damage to your optic nerve. Information about the light you see has to travel through your optic nerve to get from each eye to your brain.

Optic neuritis usually causes pain behind one eye, but you might feel it behind both eyes, too. It may feel worse when you move your eyes.

Several conditions can cause optic neuritis. One of them is a nervous system disease called multiple sclerosis (MS). MS can cause eye problems like double vision and uncontrollable eye movements, too.

SEE RELATED: Why do my eyes hurt?

Treatment

Deciding how to get rid of your headache depends on what's causing it in the first place.

Treating the headache might involve:

  • Migraine – Over-the-counter pain reliever, prescription headache medicine, stress management, cold compress, lying in a dark room

  • Cluster headache – Oxygen mask, prescription nasal spray or injection for headache pain

  • Eye strain – Frequent breaks, the 20-20-20 rule, new prescription glasses or contacts, reading glasses

  • Sinus headache – Antibiotics, decongestant nasal spray, saline nasal spray, warm compress, inhaling steam, neti pot

  • Graves' disease with thyroid eye disease – Dry eye drops, sunglasses, eyelid tape, special glasses for double vision, steroid medication, surgery of the orbital area around the eyes

  • Optic neuritis – Steroid medication

Headache on the right or left side of your head

Another headache location is pain on one side of your head or face. In many cases, the direction (left or right side) isn't very important. It varies from person to person.

Causes of headaches on the side of the head

Some possible causes:

  • Migraine

  • Cluster headache

  • Hemicrania continua

  • Temporal arteritis

Hemicrania continua is a headache that usually happens on the left or right side of your head or face. It lasts three months or longer without treatment. It's not very common, but it might happen more often than researchers used to think.

Some people get symptoms that feel like a migraine or cluster headache. These include red eyes, a stuffy nose, light sensitivity and nausea.

Time is the biggest factor that separates hemicrania continua from most other headaches. It usually causes continuous pain all day, every day until you get treatment.

Sometimes hemicrania continua only happens once. Other people get multiple episodes during their lifetimes.

Temporal arteritis (also called giant cell arteritis) is swelling of the blood vessels near your temples. It mostly affects people over age 50, but it's rare.

It can cause severe pain in your temples. It can also cause jaw pain, the feeling that your jaw is stuck while you chew, weight loss, vision changes, fatigue and other symptoms.

Temporal arteritis needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly to avoid vision loss and serious blood vessel damage. In some cases, it can cause a life-threatening bulge or tear in the aorta, the largest artery in the body. The most common treatment is steroid medication.

Treatment

Recommended treatments depend on the cause:

  • Migraine – Pain relievers, prescription headache medication, relaxation techniques, cold packs, limited exposure to light

  • Cluster headache – Oxygen therapy, prescription headache medicine, nasal spray or injection

  • Hemicrania continua – Indomethacin or celecoxib (prescription anti-inflammatory drugs)

Headache across your forehead

Most pain in this headache location is caused by:

  • Tension headache

  • Migraine

  • Acute angle-closure glaucoma

Tension headache is the most common type of headache.

Many cause a dull, consistent headache in your forehead, above your eyes. Some people say it feels like their head is being squeezed on both sides. It won't make you feel nauseated and usually doesn't make your eyes feel sensitive to light.

Tension headaches can be triggered by things like stress, poor posture or eye strain. 

Over-the-counter pain medicine may help, but be careful. Taking these drugs too often can cause rebound headaches, which can be very painful and hard to get rid of. Too much pain medicine can also damage your liver, stomach and other parts of your body over time.

Many doctors recommend taking painkillers no more than twice a week.

Acute angle-closure glaucoma happens when the pressure inside your eye goes up very quickly. It's an emergency because it can lead to vision loss if it isn't treated right away.

It can cause a headache in your forehead or severe pain in one eye, along with nausea and vomiting. Most people will have blurry vision and see rainbow-colored rings around bright lights.

Open-angle glaucoma is much more common than angle-closure glaucoma. This type usually isn't painful, but without treatment it can still lead to vision loss. It's usually managed over long periods of time.

SEE RELATED: More information about the different types of glaucoma

Pain in one or both temples

Possible causes of discomfort in this headache location are:

  • Tension headache

  • Cluster headache

  • TMJ disorder

  • Temporal arteritis

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems happen when something isn't right in the areas where your jaw connects to your skull. You can feel this joint if you place your fingers in front of your ears, then open your mouth.

The medical name for these problems is temporomandibular disorders, or TMDs for short.

There are more than 30 types of TMDs. Some of them can cause pain in your temple areas.

Most experts recommend treating TMJ problems without surgery or any other procedure that permanently changes your jaw, teeth or bite.

Possible short-term treatments include gentle jaw stretches, eating softer foods and avoiding habits that strain your TMJ (like chewing gum or clenching your jaw).

Headache behind the ear

Headaches behind your ears can be caused by referred pain. A problem in your head or neck sends (refers) painful nerve signals into other parts of your head.

When you feel referred pain, there usually isn't anything wrong with the area where you feel it. The problem is actually somewhere else.

With TMJ disorders, for example, the problem is the jaw joint. But nerves can send referred pain behind the ear and into other parts of the head and face, even though they aren't part of the joint.

Possible causes of headaches in this location include:

  • TMJ disorder

  • Occipital neuralgia

  • Glasses that don't fit well 

Occipital neuralgia is a problem with the occipital nerves that run from your neck through your scalp. It can cause a throbbing, burning ache with feelings of shooting pain or electrical shocks.

The pain from occipital neuralgia usually starts in your upper neck and spreads through your face and scalp. Some people feel pain behind one ear or eye.

It can be caused by a pinched nerve, injury, spinal arthritis and other health conditions. But doctors don't always know why it happens.

Heating pads, pain medicine and other medications can help lessen the pain. There are also surgical and nonsurgical treatment options that can help people live a more pain-free life.

Glasses that don't fit well can cause headaches around or behind your ears. Eyeglasses rely on their earpieces to stay on your face, so it can hurt when something isn't right.

New frames should be adjusted to the size and shape of your face. You can try to adjust your glasses at home, but be careful not to damage them.

When in doubt, take the frames to your eye doctor's office or local optical shop. Most will adjust them free of charge.

Pain on the back of your head or neck

You might feel pain in this headache location because of:

  • A tension headache

  • A migraine

  • Eye strain

  • Occipital neuralgia

  • Cervicogenic headache

  • Pseudotumor cerebri

Cervicogenic headaches start with a bone, disc or muscle problem in your neck. This causes referred pain on one side of your head and face. They're easy to confuse with migraines and tension headaches since the pain can happen in similar spots.

As many as one in every 25 people who have a headache has a cervicogenic headache. They're most common in people in their 30s and 40s.

Most cervicogenic headaches start near the first three bones in your spine. These bones are called the C1, C2 and C3 vertebrae. They're in the top half of your neck, right underneath your skull.

Sometimes, treatment is as simple as replacing your pillow or making your desk setup more "neck-friendly." Physical therapy and neck exercises can help people who have arthritis, pinched nerves or other medical conditions.

Doctors usually don't recommend surgery unless they really need to.

Pseudotumor cerebri means "false brain tumor" in Latin. It can cause some of the same symptoms as a real brain tumor, but it's actually a problem with the fluid in your brain and spinal cord. This makes pressure build up inside the skull.

Pseudotumor cerebri is rare, but it can cause headaches in the back of your head or neck. It can also cause blurry vision, double vision, vision loss, ringing in your ears, and other symptoms. The effects often get worse with physical activity.

Pain in more than one area

Possible causes of pain in multiple headache locations include:

Headache map showcasing types of headaches and their location.

  • Tension headache

  • Migraine

  • Eye strain

  • Sinus headache

  • Occipital neuralgia

If you feel a dull ache in your head, there's a good chance it's a tension headache. Most people get them at some point during their lives.

The pain can be hard to pinpoint to just one spot. Sometimes the right side of your head hurts; sometimes the left side hurts. Other times, the pain is on both sides. It can even feel like your head hurts everywhere.

Most tension headaches aren't serious, but they can still affect your everyday life. Getting the right diagnosis can help a doctor find the best treatment and rule out other medical conditions.

SEE RELATED: Which type of headache do you have?

When to get medical help

These aren't the only conditions that can cause headaches in certain parts of your head.

Talk to a doctor any time you feel a new kind of pain in your head. Most headaches aren't dangerous, but some are caused by important medical problems that should be diagnosed.

Some headaches are signs of an urgent problem that needs to be treated immediately. Get medical help right away if you notice these or any other headache danger signs:

  • Sudden, severe pain and a stiff neck

  • Fever, nausea or vomiting unrelated to another illness

  • Confusion, double vision, weakness or loss of consciousness

  • Pain that gets worse over days or weeks

  • Pain after a head injury

  • Violent, uncontrollable movements (convulsions) and/or shortness of breath

  • Any of the signs of stroke

Migraine. MedlinePlus [Internet]. May 2021.

Migraine aura. Cleveland Clinic. November 2021.

Computer vision syndrome (Digital eye strain). EyeWiki. American Academy of Ophthalmology. April 2022.

Sinus infection (Sinusitis). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 2019.

Is it migraine or sinus headache? American Migraine Foundation. June 2021.

Cluster headaches. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed April 2023.

Graves' disease. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. November 2021.

Graves' eye disease. National Eye Institute. October 2022.

What is optic neuritis? EyeSmart. American Academy of Ophthalmology. May 2022.

Multiple sclerosis. EyeWiki. American Academy of Ophthalmology. May 2020.

Cluster headaches. Cleveland Clinic. February 2021.

Hemicrania continua. The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (ICHD-3). January 2018.

What to know about hemicrania continua. American Migraine Foundation. November 2020.

Hemicrania continua. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. January 2023.

Headache. MedlinePlus [Internet]. April 2018.

Tension-type headaches. Cleveland Clinic. February 2021.

Muscle contraction tension headache. StatPearls [Internet]. October 2022.

Medication-overuse headache (MOH). The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (ICHD-3). January 2018.

Medication-overuse headache. StatPearls [Internet]. July 2022.

TMD (Temporomandibular disorders). National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. March 2023.

Temporomandibular disorders (TMD). National Health Service (England). August 2020.

Temporal arteritis. Cleveland Clinic. January 2019.

Giant cell arteritis. Mayo Clinic. September 2022.

Occipital neuralgia. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Accessed April 2023.

Occipital neuralgia National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. January 2023.

Cervicogenic headache. StatPearls [Internet]. October 2022.

Cervicogenic headache. The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (ICHD-3). January 2018.

Tension-type headache. The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (ICHD-3). January 2018.

Headache. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. March 2023.

Acute closed angle glaucoma. StatPearls [Internet]. January 2023.

What is glaucoma? Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment. American Academy of Ophthalmology. EyeSmart. December 2022.

Types of glaucoma. National Eye Institute. September 2021.

Pseudotumor cerebri. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed April 2023.

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