What Causes an Ice Pick Headache? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Ice Pick Headache: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Chronic headaches can interfere with focus and overall enjoyment of your day-to-day activities. Migraines and tension headaches are two of the most commonly known classifications of headache disorders, but other types may explain your chronic head pain.

More rare headache disorders include cluster headaches, cervicogenic headaches (CGH), and ice pick headaches. Though these headaches are not commonly experienced by most people, ice pick headaches in particular could provide insight into your headache symptoms.


What are ice pick headaches?

Ice pick headaches are a type of uncommon headache disorder that is characterized by stabbing pain that may be felt in the head or eye. Pain from ice pick headaches comes on suddenly, unexpectedly, and might only last a few seconds. During the time you feel ice pick headache pain, you might describe it as a quick series of stabs similar to how you imagine being stabbed by an ice pick could feel.

There are other terms used in place of ‘ice pick headache,’ the official medical diagnosis is ‘stabbing headaches,’ but they may also be called:

  • Jabs-and-jolts syndrome
  • Needle-in-the-eye syndrome
  • Ophthalmodynia periodica

Who gets ice pick headaches?

Ice pick headaches do not discriminate between those they affect. People of all ages may experience the sharp pains of stabbing headaches, though only about 2% of the global population experiences them regularly. 

Women who experience chronic migraines are more prone to ice pick headaches, in fact, they may occur alongside migraine headaches in the spot where the migraine originated. People who report these symptoms are often between the ages of 45 and 50, but they can affect people of any age.


What are common symptoms of ice pick headaches?

If you experience an ice pick headache, you may report some of the following symptoms:

Sudden, stabbing pain

Pain that comes on suddenly and is described as a stabbing sensation is the most common symptom of ice pick headaches. This pain usually comes and goes within 3 seconds, but it may last up to two minutes in rare situations. 

The pain level is described as moderately severe to extremely painful and occurs many times in a day. Some people report experiencing stabbing pain up to 50 times a day or more on one of both sides of the head.


Sensitivity to light

Sensitivity to light is a common symptom of migraines and may be experienced with ice pick headaches as well. Light sensitivity may occur alongside sensitivity to sound during the onset of a stabbing attack. Though the light sensitivity may seem extreme, it cannot cause vision damage and is not caused by eye strain.


Pain on the top or front of the head

During an ice pick headache episode, you may have pain on the top or front of the head, or on either side. The pain can be localized to one area, or experienced in multiple locations of the head at one time. When ice pick headache pain is experienced in the same location with increasing frequency, it may be a sign of a serious underlying condition.


What causes ice pick headaches?

Researchers have yet to determine the underlying cause of most ice pick headaches. The general consensus is that the occurrence of these attacks is associated with short-term disruptions to the brain’s central pain control center.

Because migraine sufferers commonly experience these stabbing headaches as well, they may have better luck identifying triggers for their attacks.

Some of the most common triggers for ice pick headaches include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation or disruption
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Changes in hormones
  • Some food additives

Sometimes ice pick headaches are categorized as “secondary headaches” in that they are a result of an underlying condition. 

The following conditions may be identified as the primary condition that results in ice pick headaches:

  • Migraine
  • Cluster headaches
  • Temporal arteritis
  • Intracerebral meningioma
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Bell’s palsy
  • Shingles

How can people prevent ice pick headaches?

Certain lifestyle adjustments can help prevent ice pick headaches. Getting adequate sleep and rest, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress effectively can help. Activities such as acupuncture, massage, and physical therapy can be both therapeutic and help to prevent future headache attacks.


What are the most common treatments for ice pick headaches?

Often ice pick headaches occur so briefly that there is not enough time to take medication. If stabbing attacks become more frequent, the use of preventative medication could provide some relief.

Identifying and treating any underlying condition that results in ice pick headaches is the best form of treatment. It’s also important to distinguish if the pain you’re experiencing is an ice pick headache or one of the other common or uncommon types of headaches. Discuss your symptoms with one of our pain professionals to receive a treatment plan that is individualized to your situation.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can anxiety cause ice pick headaches?

Stress and anxiety may cause the onset of a stabbing headache attack. Certain triggers of migraines may also trigger ice pick headaches, such as anxiety, alcohol or caffeine consumption, and sleep deprivation.

How long should ice pick headaches last?

The stabbing pain associated with ice pick headaches usually lasts 3 seconds or less, but may occur up to 50 times in one day. 

When should you speak to your doctor about headaches?

If your headache symptoms become chronic or are increasing in intensity, you should reach out to a healthcare professional for testing and a pain treatment plan. Any pain in the body that prevents you from carrying out your daily tasks is worth seeking treatment for.

Should I be worried about sharp pains in my head?

It’s important to rule out any serious conditions that could cause symptoms similar to what’s experienced during an ice pick headache. Generally speaking, ice pick headaches are not dangerous and do not cause damage to the brain, but the pain may be debilitating at times.