Ice pick headaches: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

ice pick headaches

Experiencing ice pick headaches, as the name implies, feels like someone is stabbing an ice pick in your head. This type of headache causes intense pain that often harms sufferers, as the incessant stabbing pain may make them seriously contemplate the possibility of death.


While ice pick headaches may present as intense and debilitating, they usually last for only a couple of seconds, typically around the eyes or temple. You are more likely to get ice pick headaches if you are prone to migraines or cluster headaches, with sufferers usually first noticing them between the ages of 45 and 50.

What does ice pick headache mean?

There are many forms of headaches, all of which can have varying presentations. The term “icepick” refers to a sharp, straight, pointed tool with a handle, used to break large blocks of ice into smaller pieces. Upon initial inspection of this device, you would infer that it could be used as a deadly weapon, as getting stabbed by such an object would no doubt be quite painful. It is this assumption of excruciatingly sharp pain that makes it an ideal descriptor for this type of headache.

Ice pick headaches typically occur out of the blue, lasting between five to 30 seconds during the attack before disappearing. Those afflicted by this type of headache often describe the pain occurring in a repetitive fashion, occurring over a short period of time, much like how a stabbing from a sharp objection may be performed.

Some cases of ice pick headaches occur before or during a migraine attack, which is another type of headache. Cluster headaches are also known to have co-existing icepick headache symptoms as well. Pain is often felt in or around the eye orbit and/or the parietal or temporal regions of the head.

What causes ice pick headaches?

Ice pick headache causes are unfortunately unknown or what is referred to by medical professionals as being “idiopathic”, having no known cause. However, medicals professionals believe the condition may be linked to head injuries as these can lead to the development of abnormal brain wave signals which may produce a stabbing headache.

Other medical professionals believe that head injuries are not a requirement and that the brain can randomly or be primed to produce abnormal brain wave signals for unknown reasons leading to the development of stabbing headaches.

Other possible reasons for ice pick headaches include cranial lesions, blood vessel disease, and viral infections (ex. herpes). however, none of the mentioned possibilities have been proven to be a definitive cause of ice pick headaches. Instead, they are considered a diagnosis on their own and not caused or a symptom of any other condition.

Symptoms accompanying ice pick headaches

Symptoms of an ice pick headache typically include:

  • Pain in the head occurring as a single stab or sequence of stabs
  • Pain predominantly or exclusively felt around the eyes, orbit, parietal or temporal regions of the head
  • Stabs that stay for a few seconds and recur at irregular frequencies
  • Swollen watery eyes
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Constriction of the pupil (on one eye or both)
  • Headache is not attributable to any other known disorder.

How are ice pick headaches linked with migraines and cluster headaches?

A migraine headache is often used to describe a “severe” headache. Sensitivity to sound, light, and smells often accompany migraine headaches, as it the possibility of nausea and vomiting. Head pain is usually localized to one side of the head, but some individuals may have pain on both. Pain is frequently described as throbbing or pounding and may be worse with physical exertion.

A cluster headache is considered a rare occurrence but tends to occur more in men than they do women. They can be extremely severe in nature with suffers describing the pain as being sharp, burning, or piercing in nature and located to one side of the head. Often times pain is localized around the eye or the temple. Cluster headaches can begin quickly and without warning. Interestingly cluster headaches tend to happen at the same time each year, such as in the spring or fall.

Some people may also trigger an attack from doing things such as drinking alcohol, or even simply sleeping a strong perfume.

Ice pick headaches are seen to have many similarities to the aforementioned types of headaches and often tend to present alongside them.

Should you be worried about ice pick headaches?

It is true that most mild headaches experienced by the majority of the population don’t require a visit to the doctor. These are referred to as primary headaches and make up more than 90 percent of all headache complaints. If a headache is severe enough to interfere with your daily life, such as causing you to miss days of work, it is time to see a doctor to get an expert opinion.

When a headache is sudden and severe, beings when you are 50 or older, or the result of a head injury, it is termed a secondary headache. Essentially this means that your headache has an underlying cause and needs to be treated right away.

Diagnosis of ice pick headaches

When seeing your doctor for episodes of ice pick headaches, they will ask you to tell them a brief history of when you started to experience these symptoms. This will include obtaining a full medical history of any previous disorder to help with making an accurate diagnosis. Next will come the physical exam, which involves visual and physical inspection of the area of pain.


If your doctors feel it is necessary, a detailed imaging scan can be done. This often comes in the form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), as it is sensitive enough to view any pathology within the brain.
However, the diagnosis of headaches is typically a clinical one based on the doctor’s observations and the presenting symptoms.

Treatment of ice pick headaches

Due to the unpredictable nature of ice pick headaches, treating the condition may be difficult to accomplish. Additionally, the fact that they don’t persist for very long makes finding a suitable treatment tricky as you don’t want to over medicate. The following are commonly used treatments for ice pick headaches:

  • Indomethacin: A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that is commonly used to relieve pain and inflammation can help alleviate the symptoms of an ice pick headache. It is often recommended to take this medication as soon as possible after the initial symptom of pain. While indomethacin can be useful, it can also present with some serious side effects causing cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Other medications: Other prescribed medications originally designed to help treat epilepsy and depression can sometimes be used to help treat ice pick headaches. They may also be used on a scheduled basis as a form of prevention. However, these types of medications often come with many side effects.
    Home remedies to treat ice pick headaches
  • Minimize stress: A possible trigger factor that may lead to the development of ice pick headaches. It is recommended to get adequate amounts of sleep, take time for yourself to unwind, and to avoid working around the clock to keep stress levels low.
  • Meditation: Helps to bring relaxation into your life, purging stress. It can be done on your own and in short bursts if you desire, and only requires a couple minutes of silence while you collect your thoughts to gain inner calmness.
  • Exercise: Can improve your overall health, including blood flow to your brain, possibly reducing the chances of stress and headaches. Exercise, in general, is a great way to reduce stress levels and help you feel and look great. Yoga is a great type of exercise that is not only relaxing by also quite challenging.
  • Eat a balanced diet: A diet primarily consisting of healthy food will be metabolized easier by the body, helping to reduce stress. Eating food that is highly processed, on the other hand, can cause your body to work extra hard just to break them down. Additionally, junk food or eating unhealthy meals can lead to excessive weight gain that will only add to your stress levels.
  • See your doctor: Your doctor can provide valuable insight into the particular type of headache you may be currently facing. It will also be an opportunity to learn about the various treatment options at your disposal.
  • Good night’s sleep: It is recommended to get around seven to eight hours of sleep per night, which will help your body recharge and rejuvenate for the day ahead.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: Our bodies are approximately 60 percent water, which makes staying well hydrated a great priority. It is recommended to stick to water, as other forms of liquid such as juices and tea may have excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine.
  • Keeping a log (diary): By writing down the times you experience ice pick headaches and its presenting symptoms, it can give your doctor a better idea of your specific condition. Your own personal notes can provide clues that can help find a diagnosis and potential treatment.

Sadly, for the majority of headaches affecting people, there are no known causes. But if you try to learn more about your own particular headache condition, you can give yourself the best chances to get through it within minimal discomfort.


Author Bio

Mohan Garikiparithi got his degree in medicine from Osmania University (University of Health Sciences). He practiced clinical medicine for over a decade before he shifted his focus to the field of health communications. During his active practice he served as the head of the Dept. of Microbiology in a diagnostic centre in India. On a three-year communications program in Germany, Mohan developed a keen interest in German Medicine (Homoeopathy), and other alternative systems of medicine. He now advocates treating different medical conditions without the use of traditional drugs. An ardent squash player, Mohan believes in the importance of fitness and wellness.


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