What Is a Pulsating Headache?

Pulsating headaches can be debilitating enough that you end up taking sick days from work. Depending on your employment situation, this means you could lose out on wages if the problem becomes frequent enough.

Since there are many types and causes of these headaches, it can be frustrating to know where to turn. A trigger may come out of nowhere, leaving you clueless as to how to address it. Once you understand the potential sources of this pain, you should be better prepared to begin an effective diagnosis and treatment plan.

Do You Feel a Pulsating Pain?

Do you experience throbbing headaches, also known as pounding headaches or pulsating headaches? These painful, distracting headaches can make it difficult for you to manage your day-to-day activities at work and home. They often are very resistant to common “over the counter” headache medicines.

The truth is, there are many types of headaches.

Each type suggests a different underlying cause. It’s often the case that, when the underlying issue is treated, the headache goes away for good. However, this requires a professional diagnosis by true headache experts.

Headache pains can be of different types and vary in duration and severity. Among them, a throbbing/pulsating headache can feel especially disabling. Unlike other headaches where the pain is only a mild, nagging one and daily routine is not altogether affected, pulsating headaches are much worse. They force the individual to stop all activity and lie down to rest until the pain goes away.

Pulsating Headache— Which One Is Mine?

Though you may try to lie down to relieve the pain, there are many small sensations that can exacerbate the headache. A sudden noise or movement can cause the ache to spike, and an unexpected intrusion of light can lead to other symptoms, such as nausea or intense dizziness. This can last for hours if you don’t seek out the right remedy. Finding a way to treat it starts by understanding the trigger.

A pulsating or throbbing headache is enough to bring life to a standstill and make you feel miserable for as long as it lasts. The pain is a pounding, explosive sensation in the head that may affect all or just a portion of the head. What makes it worse is that the pain can extend to the neck, arms, eyes and facial muscles as well. Some may get a headache due to food allergies. Sometimes staring at the computer for too long can be the trigger. Loud noise, caffeine withdrawal, hangovers, and stress can all be causes of a pulsating headache.

How Is a Throbbing Headache Different from Others?

A routine headache is often characterized by minor pain that eventually goes away. Those with a low threshold for pain may take an over-the-counter medication, but many people don’t consider the ache severe enough for any kind of intervention. Most are able to go about their daily activities without having to stop.

In contrast, a throbbing headache can make it impossible to focus on anything else but the pain. These aches are often localized to one particular area. The pulsating rhythm can feel like someone is beating against the inside of your skull, causing pain that only gets worse the longer you are exposed to certain stimuli.

What Causes These Throbbing Headaches?

A throbbing headache produces pain that noticeably ebbs and flows in rhythm with the sufferer’s heartbeat. This headache can arise suddenly and unexpectedly in someone who has no history of regular headaches. There are many potential causes, and some suggest a serious medical issue. Some possible causes include:

  • Hunger: Some days you may be too busy to stop and eat lunch, but this can lead to a terrible headache that’s difficult to get rid of. This pain typically manifests in tightness around your entire head, and other symptoms of hunger, such as stomach pain or dizziness, may increase the severity of the headache. If it gets bad enough, the ache may continue even after eating a meal.
  • Caffeine Withdrawal: In many cases, throbbing pain is created by the dilation or constriction of blood vessels in the head or neck. This can be caused by ingesting caffeine or–hours to many days later–the body recovering from caffeine’s effects. Pain caused by caffeine withdrawal generally manifests near the front of the head.
  • Allergic Reaction: Allergic reactions to foodstuffs, airborne allergens and more can cause pulsating headaches. Headaches centered low in the front of the head suggest that sinus pressure is to blame. However, you also should check for a rash or other symptoms that suggest a different, potentially unfamiliar allergen.
  • Venous Malformation in the Brain: Vascular damage in and around the cranium and brain may cause persistent headaches of many kinds, but throbbing pain is common. Special diagnostic imaging tests are used to uncover this issue. They pinpoint the position of veins and capillaries that appear “swollen” or malformed.
  • Migraine: A migraine is a constellation of symptoms with a chronic, severe headache at the center. The pain can come on suddenly and may include seeing an “aura” or “halo,” plus sensitivity to light and sound. Dozens of different medical conditions can cause migraines, but it also can appear alone. Many sufferers find they have a family history of migraines.

Types & Causes of Pulsating Headaches

There are many different variations of pulsating headaches, and some people are more susceptible to certain types. The kind of work you do can play a role, as can genetics. Examine the following types of headaches to determine which you believe is afflicting you.

  • Tension Headaches: This is often a dull headache that starts at the back of the head and then extends to the rest of the head. It occurs due to muscle tension felt in the scalp, neck, and shoulder. It is related to underlying stress and generally occurs in people who stare at the computer and work for a long time keeping the same position.
  • Migraine: Pulsating headache is one of the most common symptoms of a migraine. Like in the case of most headaches, the exact cause behind the pain is unknown but the trigger is likely to be some irregular activity in the brain. Migraines are more common among women than men and can be hereditary. These headaches are accompanied by vomiting, nausea, and light and noise sensitivity.
  • Cluster Headaches: Pulsating headaches are common with cluster headaches. Not only are they quite painful, but they can also last for months together. The pain is sudden and is felt on one side of the head. Smokers and drinkers are most prone to cluster headaches.
  • Sinus Infections: Pulsating headaches can also be a symptom of sinus infections that affect the front of the head. With sinus headaches, you may feel an intense burning pain along your cheeks or at the bridge of your nose. Along with the ache, you may experience nasal symptoms, such as a runny nose or congestion.

More often than not, pulsating headaches are only a result of the above few conditions and can be cured or reduced with a treatment plan. However, if the headache is recurrent and medicines do not seem to be working, it is important to check for more serious secondary causes such as meningitis, stroke or brain tumor. This is a rare thing to happen, however, it is best to rule out any possibility of an underlying ailment.

How Can You Get Relief?

Since pulsating headaches have multiple causes, there’s no one way to alleviate them. The key is to uncover what is causing it so that you can treat that specific problem. If you have trouble localizing the source of your headaches, a doctor can ask you some guided questions to help you narrow it down.

The triggers of some throbbing headaches are avoidable, but not all. For example, you may discover that the light from your computer screen is the culprit, but because it is a regular part of your work routine, you have to find a way to endure it without experiencing a headache. Migraines can also be hereditary, which is another difficult obstacle to overcome.

If You Suffer From Pulsating or Chronic Headaches, It’s Time to Get a Diagnosis

Lying with one’s eyes closed in a dark room can help get rid of the headache. Massaging the neck and scalp area can also bring relief. Over-the-counter medicines are safe and effective as long as you do not take them too often. Following a healthy lifestyle with exercise and a good diet go a long way in keeping headaches at bay.

Do you experience painful headaches two or more days a week? Have you noticed new headaches appearing more than two days a week for the last two weeks? In either case, accurate diagnosis is critical to long-term wellness. With the right treatment, you can alleviate headache pain and may be able to arrest the underlying cause before it gets worse.

You shouldn’t have to suffer through this chronic problem. People often minimize their headaches, assuming they’re normal, but there is nothing normal about frequent, debilitating pain. Get help now to get the relief that you need.

At the National Headache Institute, our experts use cutting-edge technology to uncover undiagnosed problems that might be the root cause of headaches. Each one of our patients receives a customized treatment plan to fully and effectively address the real issues. In many cases, it is possible to completely eliminate headaches at the source. This outcome even can be true for sufferers of severe and chronic migraines.

National Headache Institute has gained its reputation as one of the premier medical facilities treating a variety of headaches. Our focus is on precise and expert headache diagnosis that enables us to offer the most effective treatment options. Do not ignore your pulsating headache symptoms. Let us help you. Use our contact form to book a consultation at a clinic location today.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Damir Khabirov