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Ice Pick Headaches: Causes and Treatment

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Melanie has suffered from migraines and ice pick headaches since she was a child.

The pain from ice pick headaches can be excruciating.

The pain from ice pick headaches can be excruciating.

What is an Ice Pick Headache?

Ice pick headaches are formally known as ophthalmodynia periodica and are sometimes also called needle-in-the-eye syndrome or primary stabbing headache. Whatever you call them, they can be hard to deal with. These headaches are very sudden and extremely painful headaches that last only a matter of seconds1.

The pain associated with this type of headache can be described as a sharp, stabbing pain, thus the name "ice pick." It can be a single stabbing pain or feel like multiple stabs2. To me, the pain feels similar to an ice-cream headache, but the pain is stronger and the headache doesn't last as long.

While the pain only lasts for a few seconds, sometimes these headaches can occur in irregular clusters. These headaches are completely spontaneous as it can be days, weeks, months, or even years in between attacks. I had these headaches occasionally since I was a teenager. They are a rare occurrence for me, I'll have them in clusters over a span of a day and then I won't have them again for about a year or two.

This is an ice pick, it's where this head ache got its name. As you can imagine, the pain is unbearable.

This is an ice pick, it's where this head ache got its name. As you can imagine, the pain is unbearable.

Are Icepick Headaches Something to Worry About?

Ice pick headaches are generally benign and self-limiting, so they're usually nothing to worry about.

That said, these headaches can be a sign of other conditions, so your doctor may order a CT scan to determine if there are underlying contributing factors3.

Ice Pick Headache Causes & Triggers

The exact cause of ice pick headaches is a mystery to scientists. However, there are some people who are more predisposed to this type of a headache.

Although only 2% of the population ever experiences these headaches, up to 40% of people who have migraines experience ice pick headaches sometime in their lifetime. This type of a headache is also linked to cluster headaches. That said, these headaches usually occur independently of a migraine and cluster attacks.

While ice pick headaches and migraines have the tendency to be comorbid, not everyone who has ice pick headaches suffers from migraines. I suffer from ice pick headaches but have never had a migraine.

There may be a link between ice pick headaches and cranial trauma, cranial lesions, or the herpes virus. However, they aren't typically the sign of another underlying issue, it's always a good idea to notify your physician about them in order to rule out a potential underlying condition.

While there is no known direct cause of ice pick headaches, studies have shown that there are some precipitating factors. Knowing your triggers can help prevent a headache in the future. Common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Bright lights
  • High-frequency sounds
  • Sudden movement

What Are YOUR Triggers?

A great way to find out what triggers your headaches is to keep a journal to log your headaches. Date your entries and take notes on what you were doing when (and just before) your headache started.

Quick poll

Types of headaches

Types of headaches: migraine, tension, sinus, cluster, neck, and TMJ.

Types of headaches: migraine, tension, sinus, cluster, neck, and TMJ.

Treatment Options

Aspirin or other over the counter NSAID pain relievers are usually the first options in treating a headache. However, because ice pick headaches last only a matter of seconds, treatment can be difficult.

These headaches are usually gone before you have the chance to reach for a painkiller. By the time the painkiller would kick in, the headache would be ancient history! Pain relief can be a huge help during ice pick headache attacks where you get several of these headaches throughout a short period of time.

The problem with treating these headaches is that they occur so infrequently and last for such a short while that it would almost not be worth the effort. If you suffer from migraines and take medication for preventative measures, this may also help prevent ice picks. However, if you don't suffer from migraines, usually the best course of action is to let a headache pass.

Ibuprofen is an affordable over-the-counter option that can be effective in treating ice picks. Melatonin, an over-the-counter insomnia treatment, has also been shown to be helpful.

Before taking any medication, talk to your doctor. It's important to keep your doctor informed about your headaches, even if you're already being treated for migraines.

References

  1. Robert, Teri. “Ice Pick Headache - The Basics.” Causes - Obesity | HealthCentral, Healthcentral, 18 Feb. 2016, www.healthcentral.com/article/ice-pick-headache-the-basics.
  2. “4.7 Primary Stabbing Headache.” ICHD-3 The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition, www.ichd-3.org/other-primary-headache-disorders/4-7-primary-stabbing-headache/.
  3. Nutrition and the Brain, www.medlink.com/article/idiopathic_stabbing_headache.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Melanie

Comments

AestheticChaos on January 10, 2014:

I have been getting these ice pick headaches since i was a teenager, but I never thought of them as a headache because i would only get about 5 at most throughout the day. Yesterday I started getting the pains again but it hasn't stopped. I read some people have had them for days on end. I really hope that's not the case because they are horrible.

sammy jacobs on February 08, 2013:

im having headaches for months now do not know what to do please help

diogenes from UK and Mexico on February 01, 2013:

I have these, the doc said he thinks mine are neuralgia of some sort. It's been going on for 20 years, on and off, so i've ruledout a tumor out (I hope!)

Unpleasant though

Good article

Bob

Chris on January 31, 2013:

As if a tiny grenade has exploded in your head and it's all over in seconds. I've suffered with these momentarily crippling pains since I was a child and had the worse one today, hence the research. With me, they seem to follow times of inactivity (sloth penance?). Shame there is no cure but some consolation that I can now explain why I am sometimes suddenly incapacitated and rendered dumb.

K on January 30, 2013:

I've been having ice pick attacks off and on for years now, though mostly on it seems. usually I have at least 1 attack a day, the worst days I lose count how many separate attacks. It always feels like people think I'm making it up because often they only notice I'm holding my head and doing deep breathing exercises at the end of an attack.

mechelle on October 17, 2012:

I get these headaches once a week and the stabbing attacks last all day. I feel a short stabbing pain several times in a row, then a break and it continues like this throughout the day. The stabbing i feel is often so intense, my scalp is sore.. I've tried everything and nothing works to ease it. Any suggestions??

Doona on September 27, 2012:

Haven't had an "ice-picker" for quite a while but weirdly had one while getting a deep muscle massage on a tight calf muscle...thought there had to be a relation, but maybe it was just random....had a few more afterwards.....maybe some toxins were released into my head?!

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on May 29, 2012:

I've had the range of headaches, but the ice pick headaches are the most sudden and debilitating, even though they last only a short time. The WHO and IHS have changed their headache classifications in recent years, although they still don't understand how ice pick headaches work (in the 'other' category).

A journal is certainly useful for tracking symptoms.

Btryon86 on May 27, 2012:

I've always had migraines, and I experience intense bouts of stabbing pain all the time, but I never knew there was an actual name for them. I just figured they were random pains. Very informative hub! Glad to know there are some treatment options.