Ice Pick Headache Signs and Symptoms

People who suffer from migraine symptoms or cluster headaches are more likely to experience what's known as an ice pick headache—a sudden, stabbing pain that hits with no warning.

Ice pick headache

You'll know an icepick headache when one hits you.

Photo: Dreamstime

An ice pick headache—the type that causes a stabbing pain and usually centers in the temple area or around the eyes—is very rare. For most people, thankfully, it’s brief, lasting from one to 10 seconds. For those prone to ice pick headaches, however, they can occur several times a day.

Another symptom you may notice with an ice pick headache is that you develop swollen, watery eyes and drooping eyelids, with pupil constriction in one or both eyes. You also may notice accompanying nasal congestion. Because ice pick headaches strike so fast and usually resolve rapidly, treating them isn’t easy. They often will have dissipated before you can take any painkilling medication.

The cause of ice pick headaches (sometimes written as “icepick” headaches) is unknown. Some research suggests, however, that they may be related to head injuries.

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Treating and Preventing Ice Pick Headaches

If you’re prone to ice pick headaches, there are a number of steps you can take to try to prevent them.

Since they tend to occur alongside migraines and cluster headaches, they may respond to medications that treat those types of headaches.

FYI

WHICH HEADACHE?

Headaches can bring with them various symptoms and for different lengths of times. See these related University Health News articles:

One option for ice pick headache treatment is indomethacin (Indocin), a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) similar to ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Indomethicin must be taken sparingly, however—particularly by people with heart disease, since long-term use is associated with a greater risk for heart attack and stroke. Since it is an NSAID, other side effects also are possible—for example, gastrointestinal bleeding. It also has been linked to eye problems, so if you take it you should have regular (at least annual) eye exams.

There also is evidence that melatonin supplements (which can be used to help prevent jetlag) may be effective for easing an ice pick headache. And boost your intake of foods that naturally contain melatonin—these include pineapples, bananas, oranges, sweet corn, and tomatoes.

Meditation and other stress-relief options also may reduce the frequency of ice pick headaches, according to research.


Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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