What Is an Ice Pick Headache?

Stabs Consistently Located in One Place Require a Thorough Evaluation

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, 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. 

In about 30 percent of people, the pain occurs in one fixed spot, whereas in others, it moves around. When the headache stabs are fixed on one spot, a headache specialist first must rule out a cranial nerve problem or brain structural problem. Once a nerve or brain problem is ruled out, these ice pick headaches are referred to as primary stabbing headaches.

Ice Pick Headaches Linked to Migraines and Cluster Headaches

It's interesting to note that some people with ice pick headaches report their headaches begin with or are worsened by exposure to bright light, stress or movement during a migraine. This implies that you can experience both a migraine and an ice pick headache at the same time (a double whammy, so to speak).

In addition, if you have a history of 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—a type of headache that causes severe, disabling piercing or burning pain around a person's eye or near their temple.

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,  a disease of the blood vessels in the brain, or nerve sensitization.

At this time, though, there is no conclusive scientific data at this point.

Treatment of Ice Pick Headaches

Traditionally doctors prescribe Indocin (indomethacin), a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID), similar to ibuprofen, for ice pick headaches. That said, Indocin is linked to some adverse effects like stomach and intestinal bleeding and kidney problems. Remember to always talk with your doctor first before taking any medication, including any over-the-counter drugs.

Researchers have looked for indomethacin alternatives without much success. COX-2 inhibitors (like Celebrex) may be beneficial, but they too carry adverse effects like 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. Also, 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 home-based strategies include:

  • Reducing your stress level
  • Getting adequate sleep and maintaining a regular sleep pattern (for example, going to bed at the same time every night)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Taking time out of each day to engage in an enjoyable, relaxing activity

Another 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 people with stabbing headaches notice what activities may be contributing to their headaches, and what medication seems to relieve them.

A Word From Verywell

Ice pick headaches are not common, but if you are afflicted by them, they are painful and can be burdensome.

That said, the good news is 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. 

Even so, be sure to see a headache specialist for a proper diagnosis of your headaches. There are other health conditions that may be mimicking your ice pick headaches, and those need to be ruled out first.

Sources:

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.

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