Throbbing headaches can have a range of causes, such as a migraine headache or hangover. They can occur in different areas of the head and may occur alongside other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.

This article will discuss the different types of headaches, their causes, and treatments.

A woman with a throbbing headache touches her temples.Share on Pinterest
The location of the throbbing headache may help a doctor identify the cause.

Throbbing headaches can cause pain in different areas of the head, such as:

  • both sides of the forehead
  • one side of the forehead
  • behind the eyes
  • the temples
  • top of the head
  • the base of the skull

The location of the pain may help a doctor diagnose the cause of the headache.

The National Headache Foundation list several possible causes for a throbbing headache, including:

Hangover

If someone drinks alcohol, they may develop a throbbing headache as the alcohol wears off. Hangover headaches typically cause throbbing on both sides of the head.

There are several ways that alcoholic drinks can cause headaches. Alcohol can dilate blood vessels in the head, cause dehydration, or inflammation, all of which could cause a headache. Some alcoholic drinks contain other substances, such as sulfites, which also trigger headaches in some people.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the symptoms of a hangover vary depending on the individual, but can include:

  • tiredness
  • thirst
  • muscle aches
  • nausea or vomiting

These symptoms can last 24 hours or more. Drinking fluids, such as water and broth, can help.

A person with a hangover may also benefit from eating something that contains fructose, such as honey.

Migraine

Migraine causes moderate to severe headaches that typically affect one side of the head. There are two broad types:

  • Migraine headaches with aura: Aura is a collection of sensations that someone experiences shortly before the onset of pain. Aura can include vision changes or numbness in the arms or legs.
  • Migraine headaches without aura: This type of migraine headache includes pain but no aura. Accompanying symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and cold hands.

Some people find that specific food or smells trigger migraine headaches. Females may find they are more likely to develop migraine headaches at particular points in their menstrual cycle.

Some people experience chronic migraine headaches, which means they get them for more than 15 days each month. Other people have episodic migraine headaches, which means they occur less frequently.

Sinus headache

Sinusitis or allergies that cause swelling or blockage of the sinuses can cause pain in the front of the head or around the nose. Sinuses are the empty spaces around the nose and eyebrows.

However, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), sinus headaches are relatively rare. Most often, migraine headaches cause pain in the front of the face.

Sinus pain can resemble a migraine headache, and doctors may mistake one condition for the other.

The AAAAI state that if someone meets the following criteria, they may have a sinus headache:

  • headache in the front of the head and pain in one or more areas of the face, ears, or teeth
  • headache and sinus pain that occurs at the same time
  • headache or facial pain or both that go away within 7 days after successful sinusitis treatment
  • clinical or laboratory evidence, such as from a nasal endoscopy

Caffeine withdrawal

According to the National Headache Foundation, if a person who normally consumes caffeine suddenly stops, they may experience caffeine withdrawal. The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include:

  • a throbbing headache
  • feeling sleepy or drowsy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability or anxiety
  • depression
  • nausea or vomiting
  • muscle aches

To avoid the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, a person can try gradually reducing the amount of caffeine they consume instead of stopping abruptly.

Occipital neuralgia

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) indicate that occipital neuralgia causes a continuous aching, burning, or throbbing pain that typically starts at the base of the skull and radiates over the scalp on one or both sides of the head.

Sometimes the pain also occurs behind the eyes on the affected side of the head.

The pain of occipital neuralgia has similarities to a migraine headache but is the result of a pinched nerve or muscle tightness in the neck. Sometimes, an injury or underlying condition leads to occipital neuralgia.

Conditions that may cause occipital neuralgia include:

  • arthritis in the upper spine
  • cervical disc disease
  • tumors that affect the nerves
  • gout

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a rare and severe type of headache that cause excruciating pain on one side of the head, near the eye. A person with a cluster headache may also experience:

  • a watery eye
  • a blocked nose
  • a flushed face

Attacks can occur daily for weeks or months and then disappear for extended periods.

Thunderclap headaches

Thunderclap headaches cause sudden, severe pain in the head. Nausea, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, or speech problems may accompany a thunderclap headache.

This type of headache can be a symptom of a stroke or an aneurysm. If someone develops these symptoms suddenly, dial 911 for emergency help.

To diagnose the type of headache someone has, a doctor will look at a person’s medical history and ask about their symptoms. They might ask whether they have experienced a recent knock to the head or a fall.

A doctor may perform a physical examination to check for signs of bone or nerve damage. In some cases, they may order an MRI or CT scan.

The best treatment for a throbbing headache depends on the cause of the pain.

Headaches caused by alcohol or caffeine withdrawal will improve on their own. According to NIAAA, there is no proven way to speed up recovery from a hangover.

Sinus pain caused by allergies may improve with the use of antihistamines, nasal sprays, and avoidance of allergy triggers, such as dust. If a bacterial infection causes sinus pain, a person may need to take a course of antibiotics.

For migraine headaches, treatment can be more complex. A person who experiences regular migraine headaches may benefit from trying to identify triggers. They can do this by keeping a diary. However, in some cases, there are no clear triggers.

According to the National Headache Foundation, a doctor may prescribe medications that prevent migraine headaches from occurring, such as beta-blockers, or medications that a person takes during an attack, such as 5-HT agonists.

Cluster headaches may improve with oxygen treatment. A doctor can provide oxygen at the hospital or at home with a prescription. Alternatively, a person may benefit from medications such as sumatriptan or ergotamine.

The AANS suggest a range of treatments, such as:

  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • physical therapy
  • injections that block nerve pain
  • Botox to reduce nerve inflammation

In some cases, a person with occipital neuralgia may require surgery.

To manage a throbbing headache at home, a person can try:

  • lying down in a dark room
  • using a warm or cool compress where the pain occurs
  • staying hydrated
  • taking over-the-counter pain medication
  • sleeping

Lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol or caffeine, may also help if they trigger headaches.

People who regularly experience headaches should see a doctor. They can help to identify a cause and suggest some possible treatments.

The National Headache Foundation recommend that people who regularly experience headaches should see a doctor immediately if they:

  • are experiencing their worst headache ever
  • are experiencing new symptoms that are not normal for a migraine headache
  • lose the ability to see
  • lose consciousness
  • vomit uncontrollably
  • have pain that lasts more than 72 hours with less than 4 hours pain-free

If someone develops a severe, sudden headache along with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, seizures, speech impairment, confusion, or muscle weakness, they should seek emergency medical attention.

A throbbing headache can occur for many reasons, from temporary causes, such as a hangover, to more severe or chronic forms of pain, such as a cluster headache.

Identifying and avoiding triggers can reduce the frequency of regular headaches. However, some people may need long-term treatment. A doctor will be able to diagnose the type of headache someone has and recommend the next steps.