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Headache locations and meanings

Pay attention to the location of your next headache, as it could help you narrow down the cause and find fast relief

Almost everyone gets a headache from time to time, according to the World Health Organization. But not every headache is the same. Headache locations and meanings are often directly related, as the location of your headache can help you pinpoint the cause, address it, and find relief. 

Headaches confined to a specific location can be a sign of certain conditions or head injuries, says Nishant Reddy, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at NJ ENT in Marlton, New Jersey. “More general head pain may hint at systemic problems, such as tension, dehydration, or hormonal issues,” Dr. Reddy adds. 

Headache causes by location

Location Most common causes Less common causes
Behind eye(s)  Cluster headache, migraine, or sinus pressure Eye strain or eye disorders
Back of head Cervicogenic headache or occipital neuralgia Tension headache or migraine 
Forehead Tension headache, sinus headache, or eye strain Cluster headache
Temple(s) Migraine and tension headache Temporal arteritis
One side Migraine Tension or cluster headache
Top of head Migraine or tension Sinus pressure

Common headache locations and causes

“The location of your headache is a helpful hint as to the type and what’s causing it. However, it’s essential to understand that location alone does not give a diagnosis,” emphasizes Lauren R. Natbony, MD, headache specialist and medical director of Integrative Headache Medicine of New York. Other factors include headache frequency, severity, duration, and accompanying symptoms. 

Headache behind eyes

The most common types of headaches behind the eyes are cluster headaches, migraine headaches, and sinus headaches, according to Dr. Reddy.

Cluster headaches and migraines tend to cause severe pain on just one side of your head, while sinus headaches can develop on one or both sides. 

  • A cluster headache causes sharp, burning pain behind one eye.
  • A migraine, on the other hand, causes throbbing pain on one side of your head, including the eye socket.
  • A sinus headache causes throbbing pain or pressure behind one or both eyes. Other symptoms of sinus-related issues include nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, or pressure that worsens when you bend forward or lie down.

In some cases, pain behind one or both eyes could also be a sign of vision problems or physical problems in the orbit of the eye. Go to the emergency room or contact your eye doctor if you experience sudden, severe eye pain, which is a symptom of vision-threatening glaucoma.

Headache in the back of the head

“Several headache types cause pain in the back of your head, including cervicogenic headaches, occipital neuralgia, tension-type headaches, and migraine,” Dr. Natbony says. Here are the main differences:

  • Cervicogenic headaches cause dull pain radiating from the back of the neck to the back of the head. The pain usually worsens with neck movement or manipulation.
  • Occipital neuralgia causes bursts of stabbing sharp pain at the base of the skull and back of the head. 
  • Tension-type headaches feel like a tight band around the whole head, including the back of it.
  • Migraine headaches typically occur on one side of the head, which could cause pain on one side of the back of the head. 

Headache in the forehead or front of the head

According to Dr. Reddy, headaches that develop on the front of the head are usually caused by tension or sinus pressure. In one small 2013 study, 43% of forehead headaches were caused by issues with the nasal cavity, such as congestion or pressure. 

Sinus headaches, called sinusitis, develop when the sinuses behind your eyes, cheeks, and forehead are congested. The pressure from congested sinuses causes pain directly in front of those sinuses. If you have a stuffy nose and your face feels tender to the touch, or if pain worsens when you bend forward, those are typical signs of a sinus headache. 

Tension headaches also cause pain in the forehead. This type of headache stems from muscle tension in your neck, scalp, or face. It often feels like a band of pressure around your entire head, at the level of your forehead.

Temple headache

Most temple headaches are migraine or tension headaches, according to Drs. Reddy and Natbony. However, temporal arteritis (TA), also called giant cell arteritis (GA), is a form of vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation) that can also cause temple pain.

Here’s how to distinguish between TA, tension, and migraine headaches:

  • Migraine headaches tend to affect one side of the head. So, if you are experiencing throbbing pain in one temple, you may have a migraine.
  • Tension headaches, on the other hand, cause pressure or dull pain that wraps around the head. If you are experiencing pain in both temples, you might have a tension headache. That’s especially true if you also notice muscle tension in your neck or shoulders.
  • Temporal arteritis, which requires prompt medical care, can cause temple tenderness alongside general head pain. Other warning signs of TA include scalp pain, jaw pain, and vision problems.

Headache on one side of the head

“Headache on one side of the head, left or right, is most commonly caused by migraine,” says Dr. Natbony. One-sided, throbbing head pain is one of the hallmarks of migraine disorder.

Other common symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light or sound

Not every headache on the left or right side of the head is caused by migraine. Cluster headaches usually affect one side of the face. And some tension headaches develop on just one side of the head, Dr. Reddy says. For example, jaw tension caused by stress or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems may cause pain primarily on one side of the face or head.

Headache on top of the head

Headaches on top of the head are usually caused by migraine or tension, according to Dr. Natbony. Sinus pressure caused by allergies or a sinus infection can also radiate pain to the top of the head.  

Here’s how to distinguish between migraine headaches and sinus headaches:

  • Migraine headaches that cause pain on the top of the head will likely be accompanied by other symptoms, including throbbing on the side of the head, nausea, visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light or sound. 
  • Sinus headaches on top of the head will likely be accompanied by facial tenderness and congestion. Sinus pain may also worsen if you tilt your head or lean forward.

Types of headaches

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. As the name suggests, tension-type headaches are caused by muscle tension in the scalp and neck. 

There are many other types of headaches, which can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary. 

Primary headaches

“Primary headaches are not caused by any underlying medical condition or other factors,” says Dr. Natbony. In other words, the head pain itself is the problem.

The cause of primary headaches is still not fully understood. Many experts, including Dr. Natbony, point to a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurological factors.

Examples of primary headaches include:

  • Migraine headache
  • Cluster headache
  • Some tension-type headaches

Secondary headaches

“Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying medical condition or another factor,” Dr. Natbony says. “They are a symptom of an underlying problem or disorder.”

Secondary headaches can have many underlying causes. Examples of secondary headaches include:

  • A headache from a head injury or neck trauma
  • A sinus headache from a sinus infection
  • A headache from a tumor
  • A headache from a ruptured aneurysm 

Think of it this way: A migraine headache is a primary headache because it is caused by migraine, a disorder in itself. A sinus headache is secondary because it is caused by another medical condition: sinusitis. 

When to see a doctor for a headache

Many headaches go away on their own or after you take over-the-counter pain relievers. But it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider if you get a lot of headaches or they’re becoming more severe. 

Remember, location alone does not diagnose a headache type. A medical professional can help determine the cause and treatment that would work best for you. Your doctor may ask you to keep a headache diary to help identify possible triggers, such as foods, skipped meals, or lack of sleep. Also, expect to answer questions about the following:

  • Your medical history
  • Headache frequency
  • Headache location
  • Description of headache sensation (throbbing, sharp pain, etc.)
  • Other symptoms

Sometimes, a headache can be a symptom of a medical emergency. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke advises getting immediate medical attention or heading to the emergency room if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms along with a severe headache:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever, nausea, or vomiting that is unrelated to a known illness
  • Loss of sensation or weakness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Shortness of breath
  • First or worst headache
  • Worsening, persistent, or recurrent headaches
  • New headache in someone with cancer or HIV

Also, seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing a sudden, severe headache that could be described as the worst of your life, as this is a common symptom of an aneurysm. 

Headache medicine and remedies

Different types of headaches require different treatment protocols. The best treatment for your head pain depends on the kind of headache you have. 

Here are a few effective remedies and medications for different types of headache pain:

Remember, headache types cannot be identified by location alone. If you are experiencing frequent or severe headaches, consult a healthcare professional. Understanding the type and cause of your head pain is the next step toward relief.