Various health conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head. Some of these issues, such as a sinus infection or a problem with the ear, can be easy to treat.

However, intense pressure or pain in the head can indicate a severe underlying medical condition.

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.

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

Tension-type headache

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Pressure in the head may be a tension-type headache.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, about 75% of the general population experiences tension-type headaches (TTHs).

A TTH can cause a sensation of a tight band or vice squeezing the head. Pain of a TTH ranges from mild to moderate.

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

  • Infrequent episodic TTH: occurs once or less often per month, on average.
  • Frequent episodic TTH: occurs 2–14 times per month, on average.
  • Chronic TTH: occurs 15 or more times per month, for at least 3 months.

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

Sinus infection and sinus headache

Health issues such as seasonal allergies and upper respiratory infections can cause inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses. This can result in a sinus headache.

A sinus headache causes a feeling of constant pressure in the front of the head. A person may also experience the sensation in the:

  • nose
  • ears
  • cheekbones

Migraine

Migraine is a neurological health issue. It can cause headaches, and these may involve intense, throbbing pain on the sides of the head.

A migraine headache usually affects one side of the head at a time, but it can affect both.

Migraine is more common in females than in males. According to the Office on Women's Health, nearly 29.5 million people in the United States experience pain and other symptoms of the condition.

In addition to pain, migraine can cause:

  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • vision problems, such as blurred vision, partial vision loss, or the appearance of flashing lights
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • fatigue

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

Ear problems

A dull, aching pressure on the side of the head, face, or jaw may indicate an ear infection or a vestibular migraine.

Symptoms that usually accompany ear-related problems include:

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

Meningitis

Meningitis is a rare medical condition that causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called 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.

Other causes of meningitis include:

  • infection with fungi
  • infection with parasites
  • infection with Naegleria fowleri amoeba
  • certain medications
  • lupus
  • some head injuries
  • some cancers

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

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

Brain tumor

A tumor in or near the brain can increase pressure inside the skull.

The American Cancer Society provide the following general 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 an aneurysm that they believe has ruptured should contact emergency services immediately if they have any of the above symptoms.

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

Medication

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Several types of medications are suitable for treating pressure in the head.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These drugs can help reduce pressure from TTHs, migraines, and sinus headaches. NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are available over the counter.

Triptans: This group of medications is highly effective at treating moderate to severe migraine headaches.

Antibiotics: These can eradicate bacteria that cause sinus infections or bacterial meningitis. People with bacterial meningitis usually receive intravenous antibiotics.

Corticosteroids: These drugs help reduce inflammation and pressure caused by infection or inflammatory conditions, such as lupus. In combination with antibiotics, they can help treat bacterial meningitis.

Antiviral medications: These drugs may help eradicate viruses responsible for conditions such as viral meningitis and other infections, but they are not always effective.

Chemotherapy: These powerful anticancer drugs may help slow the growth of certain types of brain tumor.

Surgery

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, however, it is not possible to remove the entire tumor, due to its location.

In this case, 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

Large brain aneurysms may require surgery, especially if there is an increased risk of rupturing. Treatments for brain aneurysms focus on stopping the flow of blood to the weakened vessel.

Doctors can do this with various surgical or minimally invasive 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.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Persistent headaches and migraines 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 cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying unhelpful thoughts that a person may have in response to stressful events.

CBT can teach people strategies for interrupting the pain-stress cycle, reducing headache-related psychological distress.

According to a 2017 article in The Journal of Headache and Pain, stress is the most common trigger for migraine headaches.

A 2016 multinational survey showed an association between migraine headaches and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

The following relaxation techniques may help reduce stress and anxiety, alleviating associated head pressure and pain:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: This deep breathing technique may help lower levels of stress hormones in the body.
  • Guided imagery: This type of meditation involves bringing peaceful scenes to mind.
  • Mindfulness meditation: This involves directing attention toward feelings and sensations that are happening in the present moment.

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A person should speak to their doctor if they experience sudden, severe headaches.

People should see a doctor if they experience 14 or more headaches per month.

The following types of headache also require medical attention:

  • sudden, severe headaches
  • headaches that last longer than a few hours
  • constant headaches that are always in the same location
  • headaches that become more severe when changing body positions

Sometimes, other symptoms accompany head pressure and pain. People should seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:

  • stiffness in the neck
  • weakness on one side of the body
  • slurred speech
  • difficulty walking
  • fever, night sweats, or both
  • eye or ear pain
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • vision changes
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness

Several conditions can cause a feeling of tightness or pressure in the head. The most common causes are headache, migraine, or infection.

Most conditions that cause pressure in the head go away on their own or respond to over-the-counter pain medication.

However, intense or persistent pressure in the head may indicate a severe underlying medical condition.

People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience a sudden, severe headache that is accompanied by neck stiffness, slurred speech, or other symptoms that could be serious.