Ice pick headaches are a type of headache disorder that causes unexpected, sharp, stabbing pains. Primary stabbing headaches have no underlying cause. They’re difficult to treat because the pain lasts just a few seconds. You can take steps to prevent headaches.
An ice pick headache is an uncommon headache disorder. It causes a sudden, sharp, stabbing head pain (or a quick series of pains). This pain comes on unexpectedly and lasts a few seconds.
People who have these headaches equate the pain to being stabbed in the head or eye with an ice pick.
The medical term for ice pick headaches is stabbing headaches. Other terms include:
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Some studies suggest that only about 2% of people worldwide experience these headaches. But one Norwegian study found that 1 in 3 people had ice pick headaches.
People of all ages and genders can get ice pick headaches. Women who get migraine headaches are more prone to them. In 1 in 3 instances, the ice pick headache occurs in the spot where migraine pain originates.
Experts aren’t sure why some people get ice pick headaches. All types of headaches have primary and secondary causes:
An ice pick headache may cause a single stabbing pain or a series of quick pains. In 8 out of 10 instances, each stabbing pain lasts less than three seconds.
These head pains:
Your healthcare provider can diagnose ice pick headaches based on your symptoms. Rarely, ice pick headaches are a sign of an underlying problem like a brain tumor.
Your provider may order an MRI or another imaging test to check for health conditions. But most people with ice pick headaches don’t need this type of testing.
Your healthcare provider will also want to rule out other headache disorders that cause similar symptoms. These include:
Ice pick headaches disappear quickly. They aren’t like other headaches or migraines, which can last for hours or linger for days.
There isn’t time to take pain relievers to treat ice pick headaches. By the time the medicine kicks in, the ice pick headache is long gone.
Instead, treatments focus on preventing pain. Preventive steps include:
The same steps you might take to prevent other headaches or migraines may also lower your risk of ice pick headaches. Don’t overdo it with pain medicine. You can develop medication overuse or rebound headaches.
You can also:
Ice pick headaches come and go quickly. They aren’t as debilitating as chronic migraines or headaches. Still, you should see your healthcare provider if head pain lasts several days or interferes with your ability to work or complete daily activities.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience stabbing head pain and:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Because ice pick headaches happen sporadically and go away so quickly, many people don’t tell their healthcare providers about them. But these headaches may be more than a painful nuisance. In rare instances, they’re a sign of a more serious problem. You should share your symptoms with your provider. They can find what’s causing the pain and work with you to prevent head pains.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/25/2021.
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