What is An Ice Pick Headache?

How You Can Make This Stabbing Headache Go Away

Does Your Headache Feel Like an Ice Pick is Stabbing It?
Does Your Headache Feel Like an Ice Pick is Stabbing It?. Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

If a stabbing pain is the central symptom of your headache, you may have what's commonly referred to as an "ice pick headache," and it can be as jarring as the eerily descriptive name suggests.

Symptoms of Ice Pick Headaches

If you've experienced an ice pick headache—also known as primary stabbing headache—you may have felt a sharp jabbing sensation, often around your eye or temple area. The stabs or jabs do not appear in a pattern, but rather come about erratically, once to multiple times a day.

 The pain lasts a very short time, usually 3 seconds or less.

Some ice pick headaches occur with other symptoms like:

  • nausea
  •  vertigo
  • shedding of tears
  • runny nose
  • blood shot eyes

Others report that their headaches begin with or are worsened by exposure to bright light, stress or movement during a migraine—meaning you can experience both a migraine with an ice pick headache on top of it (a double whammy)

Ice Pick Headaches Linked to Migraines and Cluster Headaches

If you've suffered with migraines you are more likely to experience ice pick headaches. When they do occur simultaneously, most people experience the stabbing pain on the same side of the head. Ice pick headaches are also linked with cluster headaches.

Aside from the association with other types of headaches, little is known about the cause of ice pick headaches. Some research suggests a relationship to cranial trauma, benign cranial lesions, herpes or disease of the blood vessels in the brain, but there is no conclusive scientific data at this point.

Treatment for Ice Pick Headaches

Traditionally doctors prescribe indomethacin (Indocin), an anti-inflammatory medication similar to ibuprofen for ice pick headaches. But this medication only works in approximately 75 percent of patients.  In addition, long-term use of indomethacin increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, especially among those with heart disease—so some people can simply not take it.

Indomethacin is also associated with other adverse effects like stomach and intestinal bleeding and kidney problems. 

Researchers have looked for indomethacin alternatives without much success. COX-2 inhibitors (like Celebrex) may be beneficial, but they too carry similar adverse effects as indomethacin, although are believed to be gentler and safer on the stomach.

Melatonin, the same neurohormone used to aid jet land insomnia, has been used to treat ice pick headaches. Available without a prescription, melatonin can still cause some adverse effects like fatigue, dizziness, and mood changes, so a physician should be consulted before beginning a melatonin regimen. Melatonin is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing.

Home Remedies to Treat Ice Pick Headaches

Since ice pick headaches often coincide with other types of headaches, home remedies may help ease the pain. Simple strategies include:

  • reducing your stress level
  • getting adequate sleep and maintaining a regular sleep pattern
  • exercising
  • taking time out of each day to engage in an enjoyable, relaxing activity

The Bottom Line

While ice pick headaches are painful, the good news is that there are treatments available. Also, for many people, their ice pick headaches are so short-lived and not persistent that treatment may not even be necessary. 

One consideration is to keep a descriptive headache diary, which can provide your doctor with an accurate account of your head pain. The diary can also help sufferers notice what activities may be contributing to their headaches, and what medications seem to relieve them.

Sources:

Borkum, Jonathan. Chronic Headache: Biology, Psychology and Behavioral Treatment. 1st Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007.

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. (2013). "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia, 33(9):629-808.

Ferrante E, Rossi P, Tassorelli C, Lisotto C, Nappi G. Focus on therapy of primary stabbing headache. J Headache Pain. 2010;11(2):157-60.

Fuh JL, Kuo KH, SJ Wang. Primary stabbing headache in a headache clinic. Cephalalgia. 2007;27(9):1005-9.

Olesen, Jes; Peer Tfelt-Hansen, K. Michael Welch, Peter J Goadsby, and Nabih M Ramadan. The Headaches. 3rd Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty May 23rd 2016. 

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