Ice pick headache: causes, treatment and prevention

Young Woman with Eyeglasses Suffers Eye Fatigue
Medically reviewed by Dr. Ola Tarabzuni

Key Takeaways

  • Ice pick headaches typically involve stabbing pain in the head that lasts only a few seconds. Ice pick headaches, known as primary stabbing headaches, are painful, intense headaches that occur suddenly.
  • This random sharp pain in the head is often described as a sharp shooting pain in the head or a stabbing headache. These ice pick headaches occur without any warning and can be excruciating.
  • Ice pick headaches can occur irrespective of the time of the day, they can occur during sleeping as well. This sharp pain in the head that comes and goes can occur several times within a day and affects different parts of your head.
  • Ice pick headaches are also called idiopathic stabbing headaches or opthalmodynia periodica.
  • People who have a history of migraine or cluster headaches are more prone to experience this random head pain.

Overview

An ice pick headache can present as brief jolts of stabbing pain in the head, shooting pain in the head, a throbbing sensation, or a dull ache. Mostly, the pain is felt on the front and sides of the head. It can begin suddenly or gradually and usually lasts a few seconds.

Although the cause is unknown, these Ice-pick headaches are usually triggered due to sleep disturbances, dehydration, excessive stress, colds or fatigue. Those who already have migraine or tension headaches are more likely to experience these random sharp pains in their heads. Rarely, ice pick headaches may reflect a more serious health condition, like a stroke, aneurysm or brain tumor.

This article comprehensively covers the common causes of an ice pick headache and explores the treatment options that may help get rid of these sudden sharp pains in the head.

What is an ice pick headache?

An ice pick headache is an uncommon headache disorder. It can present as a sudden, sharp, stabbing pain on top of the head, sudden sharp stabbing pain in the eye, headache behind the eyebrow, or a quick series of sharp pain on the side of head. This sudden sharp pain in the head that goes away quickly occurs unexpectedly, and people who suffer from it describe it as shooting pains in the head.

Some other terms for ice pick headaches or these intermittent sharp pain in the head include:

  • Primary stabbing headaches.
  • Ophthalmodynia periodica.
  • Jabs-and-jolts syndrome.
  • Needle-in-the-eye syndrome.
  • Sharp, short-lived head pain.
Do you have a stabbing pain in your head? Consult with our doctor for prompt treatment!

How common are ice pick headaches?

Some studies have concluded that only about 2% of people worldwide experience this sharp stabbing pain in the head. However, a Norwegian study reported that 1 in 3 people in fact had ice pick headaches.

Who gets Ice pick headaches?

Researchers have been unable to pinpoint the exact cause of an ice pick headache. The cause can vary from person to person as well. However, researchers have established that these random pains in the head, head pain that comes and goes, or sharp pain in the left temple comes and goes, or sharp pain in the forehead can arise from chemical activity in the brain, nerves, or surrounding blood vessels.

Additionally, the muscles in the head and neck may contribute to this. It has also been concluded that a specific population possess a specific gene that makes them prone to developing headaches. Those who suffer from migraines or other forms of headache are more susceptible to developing these ice pick headaches. Anyone can get this sharp headache, but it is most commonly reported between the ages of 45 and 50.

What causes these headaches?

The underlying cause of ice pick headaches has yet to be established. Still, it is thought to be associated with sudden, short-term disruptions in chemical activity in the brain that modulate central pain control mechanisms.

Ice pick headaches are usually termed primary headaches, meaning they are isolated and not caused by another medical condition. However, they can also be categorized as secondary headaches with an underlying cause.

If you have a sharp pain on top of your head or if the back of your head hurts, a primary headache may be the culprit.

Primary headache:

Primary stabbing headaches are described as sharp jabs to your head with an ice pick that has a short duration. The “ice pick headache” is as painful as it sounds. The name is derived from the fact that sudden pain can occur around the eyes and literally feels like an ice pick going in and out of the eye.

Some common symptoms of ice pick headache are listed below:

Sudden onset of head pain without any warning
The headache lasts between 3 and 120 seconds
Severe stabbing pain in the head or around the eyes
Sharp head pain on the top, front, or sides of the head
Left temple pain or sharp pain in the right temple comes and goes
Nausea
Dizziness
Temporary vision loss in one eye(very rare)
Conjunctival hemorrhage(very rare)
​​
The following are some factors that may trigger ice pick headaches, including:

lack of sleep(insomnia)
cold or heat
alcohol consumption
fatigue

Secondary headache:

So there are some chances that the headache that you are experiencing may be caused by other conditions, such as:

Migraine: People who suffer from migraine attacks are more prone to get ice pick headaches. Moreover, they may also experience headaches in the same region of the head, which is affected by the migraine attack.

Cluster headaches: A cluster headache cycle can end with ice pick headaches.

Bell’s palsy: This temporary facial paralysis arises from trauma to the facial nerves.

Shingles: This condition is caused by a viral infection of nerves and can result in secondary ice pick headaches.

Intracerebral meningioma: This slow-growing tumor, is present on the brain’s surface or the spinal cord. These types of tumors can affect various regions of the brain, and headache can be a presenting symptom.

Temporal arteritis: This condition primarily affects the arteries of the head and brain. Untreated condition can progress to a brain aneurysm or lead to death.

Autoimmune disorders: A study has established a link between autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune vasculitis, and an occurrence of ice pick headaches.

How to treat an ice pick headache?

There are some options to consider for ice-pick headache relief. Depending on the type and characteristic of the headaches, the following options are available:

Headache medications

Indomethacin: This drug is classified under an oral nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Indomethacin works by blocking inflammation and, hence, reducing pain. It’s a prescription medication often used to treat headaches, including migraine headaches and ice-pick headaches. However, it has been reported that around 35 percent of people with ice pick headaches might not respond to this medication.

Gabapentin: Gabapentin is prescribed to treat nerve pain and used as an anticonvulsant, but this may help ease this form of pain as well.

Over the Counter Medications

If you are looking for over-the-counter options for the treatment of ice pick headaches, the following are some of the options:

Melatonin: The hormone melatonin is available without a prescription. It helps deal with insomnia and headaches.

​​Headache pain relievers: For milder headaches, a combination of medications containing aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine can help treat an episode of headaches.

Have you been having headaches every day? Talk to our doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Are ice pick headaches serious?

If the question, ‘Should I worry about sharp pains in my head?’ is rattling around in your head, be assured that although occasionally debilitating, ice pick headaches are usually not dangerous. These headaches do not damage the brain. According to Dr. Estemalik,

“The vast majority of primary stabbing headaches are benign and will go away in a few weeks or a couple of months.”

How can I prevent an ice pick headache?

Following are some ways to prevent an ice pick headache naturally:

  • Avoid exposure to bright lights.
  • Maintain a proper sleep schedule
  • Eat cold foods slowly, or don’t consume them.
  • Avoid stress whenever possible.

When should I see a doctor?

Primary stabbing headaches do not usually require treatment and usually resolve on their own. However, you should seek treatment for your headaches if they persist or if the pain is intense. If a question such as ‘Why does my head feel weird?’ is bothering you and if you have headaches that have persisted and are worsening over time, it is best to consult a doctor and get an expert opinion by registering at Your Doctors Online.

FAQs about ice pick headache

Is it common to feel ice pick headaches in the eye?

Some people describe the pain as a ‘headache at the top of my head’. In contrast, others say they experience jolts of intense pain around one of their eyes or at their temple, which is why the headaches are also given the name of ‘ophthalmodynia periodica.’

What are the differences between Thunderclap and Ice Pick Headache?

The distinguishing factor between an ice pick and a thunderclap headache is that ice pick headache causes multiple bursts of pain and lasts a few seconds. On the other hand, a thunderclap headache is described as a sudden clap of thunder-like pain that lasts a lot longer.

Does caffeine help ice pick headaches?

Caffeine can have different effects; it may alleviate or aggravate a headache. Although, typically when a headache occurs, blood vessels widen, causing an increase in blood flow around the brain and sending off pain messages to the brain, giving rise to a headache. Caffeine constricts the blood vessels, hinders these pain signals and thereby helps relieve the pain.

Can vitamin deficiency cause ice pick headaches?

Lack of vitamin D, lack of B vitamins and low levels of magnesium deficiency can result in headaches.

What happens if occipital neuralgia is left untreated?

Occipital neuralgia is not derimental. Resting and taking painkiller medication relieves the pain. However, if you are experiencing continuous discomfort, discuss with a doctor.

Your Doctors Online uses high-quality and trustworthy sources to ensure content accuracy and reliability. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and medical associations to provide up-to-date and evidence-based information to the users.

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