There are many reasons why a headache can occur in the top part of the head. Tension, migraine, and occipital neuralgia are some of the possible causes. In some cases, a person may need medical attention.

Localized pain at the top of the head could stem from a variety of causes. In most cases, this type of headache will not indicate an underlying health condition and will resolve on its own.

However, people should speak with a doctor about their symptoms for a proper diagnosis if they are concerned about pain at the top of the head, or if they experience severe, frequent headaches.

Here, learn some causes of pain affecting the top of the head and when to seek medical help.

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Tension-type headaches are some of the most common headaches that may affect up to 78% of people at some time in their life. Experts sometimes call them muscle contraction tension headaches.

While muscular tension may play a role, it is not clear exactly why they happen. Other possible causes include vitamin deficiencies and genetic factors.

In a tension-type headache, the pain may feel as if it is squeezing or adding weight to an area, such as the top of the head. People may also feel pain in their neck or shoulders.

People often describe the pain from tension headaches as dull and say it does not throb or pulsate. Tension headaches are usually uncomfortable but not severe. They can last 30 minutes to a week, but the average duration is 4–6 hours.

Headache is one of the symptoms of migraine. Migraine headaches affect up to 12% of the population, including 17% of females and 6% of males. They are less common than tension headaches but can be more severe.

The pain may feel as if it radiates from the top of the head, along one side, or down the back of the neck. It can be severe and throbbing and occur along with other symptoms, including nausea and extreme sensitivity to light or sound.

Genetic factors appear to play a role, but many people with the condition find that specific triggers can cause migraine headaches. These include:

  • stress
  • weather changes
  • sleep problems
  • hormonal changes

People may be able to relieve and prevent migraine headaches with steps such as acupressure, yoga, and lifestyle changes.

There are different types of chronic, or persistent, headache. They include tension-type headaches and migraine headaches.

A doctor will diagnose a chronic tension-type headache if a person has a tension-type headache on at least 15 days a month for 3 months or longer.

Chronic migraine headaches also occur on at least 15 days a month for 3 months or longer, and the person will have migraine symptoms on at least 8 days a month.

The symptoms will depend on the type of headache, but some can cause pain near the top of the head. Lifestyle factors, such as stress and lack of sleep, can influence chronic tension headaches.

As the name suggests, cluster headaches occur in groups. They appear suddenly on one side of the head, often behind the eye, and they cause severe pain as well as nasal congestion or a runny nose, and a watery eye. They are rare, affecting around 1 in 1,000 people.

Cluster headaches may involve changes in the trigeminal nerve, the hypothalamus, and blood vessel dilation. However, experts do not know exactly why they happen. They can occur in response to triggers such as:

  • watching television
  • drinking alcohol
  • hot weather
  • stress

Cluster headaches tend to occur in groups. An attack can last from several weeks to a few months but may stop for several years.

During an attack, these headaches can occur from every second day up to eight times a day. A person may find it hard to get rest or relief during this time.

Sinus headaches are not listed as an official type of headache in the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (ICHD-3).

However, sinus infections or inflammation and can cause pain in the sides and top of the head.

The symptoms usually disappear when a person treats the underlying issue. A doctor may recommend medications to help with inflammation. People with long-term sinus problems may need surgery.

The ICHD-3 does not list sleep deprivation headaches as an official type of headache.

However, sleep disruption, such as sleep apnea, can cause people to wake up with headaches.

Tension-type headaches may occur when a lack of sleep causes the body to release less of a chemical known as orexin. Orexin plays a role in nervous system function, sleep, and arousal.

Hypnic headaches can cause a person to wake up from sleep, usually at the same time each night. They usually last at least 15 minutes and tend to affect people ages 50 and above.

Doctors do not know why they happen, but there may be links with pain management, REM sleep, or melatonin production.

Occipital neuralgia involves irritation to the nerves leading from the spine to the top of the head. This can cause pain in the back or top of the head.

A person may feel as if they have a tight band on their head. They may also experience tingling or jolts of shocking pain. The scalp may feel tender, and a person’s eyes can be sensitive to light.

Possible causes include:

  • trauma to the back of the head
  • pinching of the nerves due to tight neck muscles
  • nerve compression
  • infection and inflammation

A doctor will conduct tests to look for an underlying cause, although sometimes there is no clear cause.

Frequent use of over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain relief can result in overuse or rebound headaches. People with other headache disorders, such as persistent migraine, are especially prone to overuse headaches.

A doctor will consider the possibility of an overuse headache if the person has a diagnosis of a primary headache condition and experiences headaches on at least 15 days a month.

Exposure to cold temperatures may cause a cold-stimulus headache, or “brain freeze,” with pain at the front of the head toward the top. It can happen when eating a large bite of something frozen or consuming very cold drinks.

The scientific term for brain freeze is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, as it affects the sphenopalatine ganglion. This ganglion links to nerves in the sinuses.

When a person eats something cold, a sharp, severe pain hits the top of their head and lasts only a few seconds. It disappears once the cold temperature in the head has dissipated.

However, experts link sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia to other types of headaches, including cluster and migraine headaches.

Some people develop a throbbing headache during or after sudden, intense exercise, such as running sprints or having sex.

Doctors call this a primary exercise or exertional headache. It may occur due to a rise in blood pressure, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Staying hydrated and warming up may all help reduce the risk of exercise headaches. People can also speak with their doctor about medication for exercise headaches, including beta-blockers, such as nadolol (Corgard) and atenolol (Tenormin).

Anyone who experiences a severe headache after exercising or has concerns about the impact of exercise on headaches should seek medical advice.

High blood pressure rarely causes a headache, but the American Heart Association notes that it may do so if blood pressure is 180/120 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) or above.

In rare cases, a head injury, stroke, or brain abscess can cause a condition known as intracranial hypertension, where pressure builds up around the brain. This can cause a throbbing headache, vision changes, nausea, and other symptoms.

A severe, sudden “thunderclap” headache may indicate reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) due to a life threatening condition such as bleeding in the brain or a stroke. This type of headache needs immediate medical attention.

However, in most cases, pain at the top of the head will not indicate an underlying health complication and will resolve with time. People can speak with a doctor about headaches and other symptoms to receive a proper diagnosis.

There are not many muscles on the top of the head, but they may play a role in some types of headaches.

A tightening of the neck and head muscles may play a role in tension-type headaches. Around the head, excessive muscle contraction may reduce blood supply and lead to the release of substance P, which can worsen pain.

There are several ways of treating a headache. Doctors may recommend OTC pain relief, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

They may also recommend complementary or natural treatment options, including:

If a doctor identifies a specific reason for a headache, they may offer treatment to address the cause.

A person should seek medical help if they have:

  • a severe, sudden headache
  • persistent headaches that do not respond to home treatment
  • other symptoms, such as nausea and vision changes

A doctor may prescribe medications or carry out tests to see if there is an underlying cause that needs specific treatment.

The following are answers to commonly asked questions about headaches.

How do you get rid of a headache on top of your head?

People can manage a headache with OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen. They can also try relaxation techniques, drinking more water, and massage therapy.

What kind of headache feels like pressure on top of my head?

A variety of headaches can cause pain on the top of the head. Some common ones include tension headaches, migraine, and cluster headaches.

What does a dehydration headache feel like?

Dehydration headaches can feel different from person to person. They may feel like a dull, aching pain in the top or front of the head.

How do you get rid of a headache on the top of your head naturally?

People can try home remedies like massage, meditation, and breathing exercises. Certain supplements and acupuncture may also help.

Can migraine cause pain on top of the head?

Migraine headaches may cause pain on the top of the head. A person may also feel pain down the back of the neck. Migraine can also cause symptoms such as nausea and light sensitivity.

What is a stabbing pain in the top of the head?

Ice pick headaches can cause a brief stabbing pain in the top of the head. These usually affect the frontal or temporal areas of the head. As other conditions may also cause pain that feels like stabbing, it is best to contact a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

There are many reasons why a headache may affect the top part of the head. Tension-type headaches are the most common cause and often respond to home treatment.

However, a sudden, severe, or persistent headache may be due to an underlying cause that needs medical treatment.

Anyone experiencing troublesome or persistent symptoms should seek medical help. If a person has a sudden, severe, thunderclap headache, someone should call 911 or take the person to the nearest emergency room.

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