Ice Pick Headaches: Causes and Treatment
What is an Ice Pick Headache?
Ice pick headaches are formally known as ophthalmodynia periodica and are sometimes also called needle-in-the-eye syndrome or primary stabbing headache. Whatever you call them, they can be hard to deal with. These headaches are very sudden and extremely painful headaches that last only a matter of seconds1.
The pain associated with this type of headache can be described as a sharp, stabbing pain, thus the name "ice pick." It can be a single stabbing pain or feel like multiple stabs2. To me, the pain feels similar to an ice-cream headache, but the pain is stronger and the headache doesn't last as long.
While the pain only lasts for a few seconds, sometimes these headaches can occur in irregular clusters. These headaches are completely spontaneous as it can be days, weeks, months, or even years in between attacks. I had these headaches occasionally since I was a teenager. They are a rare occurrence for me, I'll have them in clusters over a span of a day and then I won't have them again for about a year or two.
Are Icepick Headaches Something to Worry About?
Ice pick headaches are generally benign and self-limiting, so they're usually nothing to worry about.
That said, these headaches can be a sign of other conditions, so your doctor may order a CT scan to determine if there are underlying contributing factors3.
Ice Pick Headache Causes & Triggers
The exact cause of ice pick headaches is a mystery to scientists. However, there are some people who are more predisposed to this type of a headache.
Although only 2% of the population ever experiences these headaches, up to 40% of people who have migraines experience ice pick headaches sometime in their lifetime. This type of a headache is also linked to cluster headaches. That said, these headaches usually occur independently of a migraine and cluster attacks.
While ice pick headaches and migraines have the tendency to be comorbid, not everyone who has ice pick headaches suffers from migraines. I suffer from ice pick headaches but have never had a migraine.
There may be a link between ice pick headaches and cranial trauma, cranial lesions, or the herpes virus. However, they aren't typically the sign of another underlying issue, it's always a good idea to notify your physician about them in order to rule out a potential underlying condition.
While there is no known direct cause of ice pick headaches, studies have shown that there are some precipitating factors. Knowing your triggers can help prevent a headache in the future. Common triggers include:
- Bright lights
- High-frequency sounds
- Sudden movement
What Are YOUR Triggers?
A great way to find out what triggers your headaches is to keep a journal to log your headaches. Date your entries and take notes on what you were doing when (and just before) your headache started.
Do you get ice pick headaches?
Types of headaches
Aspirin or other over the counter NSAID pain relievers are usually the first options in treating a headache. However, because ice pick headaches last only a matter of seconds, treatment can be difficult.
These headaches are usually gone before you have the chance to reach for a painkiller. By the time the painkiller would kick in, the headache would be ancient history! Pain relief can be a huge help during ice pick headache attacks where you get several of these headaches throughout a short period of time.
The problem with treating these headaches is that they occur so infrequently and last for such a short while that it would almost not be worth the effort. If you suffer from migraines and take medication for preventative measures, this may also help prevent ice picks. However, if you don't suffer from migraines, usually the best course of action is to let a headache pass.
Ibuprofen is an affordable over-the-counter option that can be effective in treating ice picks. Melatonin, an over-the-counter insomnia treatment, has also been shown to be helpful.
Before taking any medication, talk to your doctor. It's important to keep your doctor informed about your headaches, even if you're already being treated for migraines.
- Robert, Teri. “Ice Pick Headache - The Basics.” Causes - Obesity | HealthCentral, Healthcentral, 18 Feb. 2016, www.healthcentral.com/article/ice-pick-headache-the-basics.
- “4.7 Primary Stabbing Headache.” ICHD-3 The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition, www.ichd-3.org/other-primary-headache-disorders/4-7-primary-stabbing-headache/.
- Nutrition and the Brain, www.medlink.com/article/idiopathic_stabbing_headache.
© 2012 Melanie Palen