Various health conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head. Some, such as a sinus headache, respond to over-the-counter treatments. Others may need medical treatment from a doctor.

Rarely, intense or sudden pressure in the head can be a medical emergency. Potential causes include meningitis or a brain aneurysm.

If a person experiences severe pressure and pain in the head, as well as other symptoms such as vomiting or a stiff neck, dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.

This article describes different causes of pressure in the head. We look into accompanying symptoms and various treatments and give advice about when to see a doctor.

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The following conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head:

Tension-type headache

According to the American Migraine Foundation, around 2 in 3 adults in the United States experiences tension-type headaches (TTHs). A TTH can cause a sensation of a band or vice squeezing the head, with intensity ranging from mild to moderate.

According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, TTHs fall into three categories:

  • infrequent episodic TTH, which occurs once or less often per month, on average
  • frequent episodic TTH, which occurs 2–14 times per month, on average
  • chronic TTH, which occurs 15 or more times per month for at least 3 months

Experts do not know exactly what causes TTHs. However, they may develop as a result of:

  • muscle tension
  • stress
  • anxiety or depression
  • posture

Sinus infection

Allergies, viruses, and bacteria can cause inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses. This can result in congestion and a feeling of pressure in the face, where the sinuses are. It may also cause a sinus headache.

Sinus headaches tend to affect the area around the:

  • brow bone
  • nose
  • cheeks


Migraine is a neurological condition that causes headaches. Usually, they only affect one side of the head, causing a moderate-to-severe pain. However, they can also affect both sides of the head.

In addition to pain, migraine episodes can cause:

  • sensitivity to light
  • sensory changes shortly before the headache, such as blurry vision or seeing flashing lights
  • disturbed sense of smell, touch, or taste
  • nausea, vomiting, or both

The exact cause of migraine remains unknown. However, genetic and environmental factors may influence a person’s risk.

Ear conditions

A dull pressure on the side of the head, near the ear or jaw joint, may indicate an ear condition. This could be an infection, vestibular migraine, or another problem.

Other symptoms that can accompany ear-related problems include:

  • pain in the ear, jaw, or temple
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • trouble hearing
  • tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears
  • fluid discharge from the ear


Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are known as the meninges.

Meningitis typically develops after a viral or bacterial infection enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. The infection then invades the tissues and fluids in the brain or spinal cord. It can be life-threatening.

Other causes of meningitis include:

  • fungal infections
  • parasitic infections
  • infection with Naegleria fowleri amoeba
  • certain medications
  • certain autoimmune conditions, such as lupus
  • some head injuries
  • some cancers

Inflammation in the brain and spinal cord can cause severe head pain, as well as:

  • a stiff neck
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • sensitivity to light
  • mood changes
  • a loss of appetite
  • confusion
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • seizures

People with these symptoms require immediate medical attention.

Brain tumor

A tumor in or near the brain can increase pressure inside the skull. The American Cancer Society provides the following list of brain tumor symptoms:

  • headache
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness or a loss of balance
  • personality or behavior changes
  • seizures
  • coma

Brain aneurysm

An aneurysm is a bulge, or protrusion, that forms in a blood vessel. Aneurysms develop due to a weakness in the blood vessel wall, and the protruding region can fill with blood.

A brain aneurysm can press against nerves and brain tissue, causing the following symptoms:

  • numbness
  • weakness
  • pain above and behind the eye
  • pupil dilation
  • vision changes
  • paralysis on one side of the face

If a person does not receive treatment, a brain aneurysm can burst, or rupture, filling the surrounding tissue with blood. If this happens, a person develops a sudden, severe headache.

Other symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm include:

  • double vision
  • a stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • seizures
  • a loss of consciousness
  • stroke

A ruptured brain aneurysm is an emergency. Anyone with the above symptoms should contact emergency services immediately.

The treatment for pressure in the head varies depending on the cause. It may involve:


This could include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These drugs may help reduce pain from TTHs, migraine, and sinus headaches. NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are available over the counter.
  • Migraine drugs: Triptans are highly effective at treating moderate-to-severe migraine. Other drugs a doctor may suggest include ergots, beta blockers, and certain antidepressants.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics may eradicate bacteria causing a sinus infection, ear infection, or bacterial meningitis.
  • Corticosteroids: These drugs help reduce inflammation and pressure caused by infections or inflammatory conditions, such as lupus.
  • Antiviral medications: These drugs may help eradicate viruses responsible for conditions such as viral meningitis and other infections.
  • Chemotherapy: These powerful anticancer drugs may help slow the growth of certain types of brain tumor.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Persistent headaches and migraine can trigger stress, anxiety, depression, or a combination. This, in turn, can lead to further headaches.

People who experience this pain-stress cycle may benefit from therapies such as:


Some brain tumors or aneurysms require surgery. The procedures differ, depending on the condition.

Surgery for brain tumors

A person may undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. Sometimes it is not possible to remove the entire tumor due to its location, though.

In these cases, the medical team may recommend debulking surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Doing so can make subsequent radiation therapy or chemotherapy more effective.

Surgery for brain aneurysms

Not all aneurysms require treatment, but some do. In these cases, treatments focus on stopping the flow of blood to the weakened vessel and reducing symptoms.

Large brain aneurysms may require surgery, especially if there is a high risk of rupturing. Doctors can do this with various surgical procedures, such as:

  • Microvascular surgical clipping: This form of open brain surgery involves the surgeon applying a metal clip to the affected blood vessel, cutting off the supply of blood to the aneurysm.
  • Embolization: This involves using tiny metal coils to block blood flow to the aneurysm.
  • Blood flow diversion devices: These are small, flexible mesh tubes that help reduce blood flow to the aneurysm.

If an aneurysm has ruptured already, doctors may recommend surgery to insert a shunt, which diverts leaked fluid away from the area to reduce pressure.

Because there are a range of conditions that could cause pressure in the head, there is no single home remedy that will ease symptoms for all people. In some situations, only medical treatment will help.

However, for mild symptoms, people can try:

  • Drinking enough: For some, dehydration can be a headache trigger. It can also raise blood pressure. For those with vomiting, staying hydrated is especially important.
  • Taking a nap: Lying down in a dark room and napping may help some people with headaches.
  • Cold therapy: Using a cold compress on the head may help alleviate pain.
  • Relaxation: According to a 2017 article, perceived stress is the most common trigger for migraine headaches, and it can also contribute to other headache types. People may benefit from breathing techniques, meditation, or other relaxation techniques.
  • Other lifestyle changes: People with migraine can sometimes identify specific triggers for their symptoms, such as certain foods. Keeping a symptom diary may help people learn what worsens their symptoms over time.

Home remedies are not a replacement for medical care.

People should see a doctor if they experience pressure in the head that does not get better, continues getting worse, or that persistently comes back.

People should also consult a medical professional if the pressure comes with other symptoms, such as pain or unexplained fatigue.

If a person has potential symptoms of meningitis or an aneurysm, seek immediate help.

Several conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head. Many are not serious, although they can be uncomfortable. Sinus infections, ear infections, tension headaches, and migraine could all cause this symptom.

These conditions may get better on their own or respond to over-the-counter pain medication. However, intense or persistent pressure in the head may indicate a severe medical condition.

People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience a severe headache that is accompanied by other symptoms, such as neck stiffness, slurred speech, or vomiting.

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