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Headache Behind the Eye: What Does it Mean?

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Headache Behind the Eye: What Does it Mean?

A headache behind the eye can be disruptive and painful. This type of headache can feel like it’s coming from inside your head, directly behind your eye, or even within the eye itself. The throbbing pain it causes can make it tough for you to accomplish even your everyday activities. 

What causes a headache behind the eye? Can we prevent or stop one? Here’s what to know. 

What causes headache behind the eye?

A headache behind the eye can be caused by several things, including a primary headache (typically the main cause) or a secondary headache, which may signal a separate underlying issue.

Although headaches behind the eye aren’t usually something to worry about, remember: there’s a difference between these headaches and actual eye pain. Problems with the eye itself are typically rare with these headaches, but pain that worsens, affects your vision, or is accompanied by other symptoms might indicate a more serious issue and should not be ignored. The sooner you speak with a medical professional, the sooner you can obtain a clear diagnosis and get help if needed. 

Types of headaches

Primary Headaches 

Headache behind the eye tends to be caused by a primary headache, one that exists independent of another cause. Rather than a symptom of another problem, these headaches are the problem. The most common primary headaches are tension headaches, migraine, and cluster headaches — and a headache behind your eye might be the result: 

Tension headache: The most commonplace headache is a tension headache. This headache involves mild or moderate pain around the face, head, or neck, and may also cause pain behind the eye. Eyestrain is also a potential trigger for tension headaches. 

Migraine: Migraine headache may cause pain behind the eye as well. Although many people believe migraine is a “bad headache,” it’s actually a neurological condition that causes extreme pain and other symptoms through several distinct stages. While migraine symptoms can vary from person to person, they may include nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and pain around the eye. Migraines can last several days, often interrupting daily life. 

Migraine can impact your eyes in other ways as well. For example, for some, the aura stage of a migraine may cause sensory disturbances before or during a migraine attack — bright spots, zigzags, or sparks in your field of vision, as well as difficulty in speaking or a tingling sensation on one side of your body. 

Relatively rare is a retinal migraine, which impacts only one eye and can cause reduced vision or temporary blindness.

Cluster headaches: Compared to other types of headaches, cluster headaches hit fast and hard. Intense pain flares quickly around one side of your face or eye, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as watery eyes, redness, and congestion. And unfortunately, these symptoms occur in “clusters” of multiple headaches every day — or multiple times a day — over the course of several days. 

Secondary headaches

If your headache is likely not caused by tension or migraine and isn’t presenting in clusters, you might have a secondary headache, caused by an underlying disorder. A number of medical issues — for example, sinusitis, allergies, or even COVID-19 — can spark a secondary headache, so it’s best to consult a medical professional for a solid diagnosis.

Secondary headaches, especially those caused by sinusitis, are easy to confuse with migraine. Both get worse with movement, and migraine can also cause sinus-related symptoms like congestion, facial pressure, and even nasal discharge. However, sinusitis rarely causes nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or sound, so — if you have any of those symptoms — you may be experiencing migraine.

What are common headache triggers?

The best preventative treatment for any type of headache is to first understand what type you have, then try to determine what causes it. Remember: different headaches have different triggers, and they can vary from person to person. 

The most common headache triggers include: 

  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Alcohol intake
  • Environmental factors (such as bright light, smoke, humidity, weather changes, etc) 
  • Hormones 
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Lack of sleep

If you’re not sure what triggers your headaches, try keeping a headache diary. Note the length and severity of your head pain, any accompanying symptoms, potential triggers, and any measures that provide relief. Over time, you can look for patterns and make adjustments to help.

Treating a headache behind the eye

Many treatment options are possible for a headache behind the eye. Speak to your doctor to determine what headache you might have and the best way to treat it: 

  • If you have a primary headache, there are several ways to find relief. Tension headaches can respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. But those same medications don’t always work for severe headaches. And overuse of painkillers may actually cause rebound headaches, so it’s best not to rely on them too frequently.
  • If it’s a secondary headache, you must address the root cause, not just the headache itself — otherwise, pain may recur. See a medical professional for a proper diagnosis.
  • If you have cluster headaches or migraines, OTC treatments may not be enough, and it might be time to work with an expert to find prescription headache relief. You may also want to explore some alternative treatments.

Alternative treatment options

Research shows that certain supplements, such as magnesium and coenzyme Q10, may help with headaches. Other alternative treatment methods include acupuncture, massage, and tai chi. However, experts are still researching the effectiveness of these emerging treatment options. Always consult a medical provider before trying something new.

If you’re looking for more relief, simple at-home treatments might help combat common headache triggers. Experiment to see if one or more of these approaches works for you:  

  • Drink more water
  • Reduce your alcohol intake
  • Drink a cup of tea
  • Take a nap
  • Avoid bright lights and/or loud noises
  • Apply a cold or hot compress, depending on your preference

When it’s time to find help

If you’re struggling to find relief from headaches, including headache pain behind the eye, you’re not alone. Frequent, painful headaches can be difficult to deal with, but proper diagnosis and treatment can help. If you can’t determine what’s triggering your headaches, or if they’re getting worse, speak to a medical professional.

For people who experience migraine, Mable can help. We offer streamlined migraine diagnosis and treatment assisted by world-leading experts in migraine care. Our headache specialists help tailor your DNA-guided migraine treatment plan based on the latest evidence and clinical practice. Over time, we can work with you to help reduce the frequency and severity of your migraine. 

Ready to find relief? Take our quiz.

  1. World Health Organization. Headache disorders. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders
  2. NVision. How to tell if a headache is related to your eyes or eye strain. https://www.nvisioncenters.com/education/headache-eye-strain/
  3. Cleveland Clinic. Tension-Type Headaches. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8257-tension-type-headaches
  4. American Migraine Foundation. Do I Need To Have My Eyes Checked If My Head Hurts?” https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/do-i-need-to-have-my-eyes-checked-if-my-head-hurts/
  5. American Migraine Foundation. What Is Migraine? https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/what-is-migraine/
  6. Mayo Clinic. Ocular migraine: When to seek help. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/expert-answers/ocular-migraine/faq-20058113 
  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Cluster Headaches. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/headache/cluster-headaches
  8. Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. How To Tell the Difference Between COVID-19, Allergies and Sinus Problems. https://www.froedtert.com/stories/sinus-allergies-or-covid-19-how-to-tell-difference
  9. Harvard Health Publishing. Have a headache?: The top 7 triggers. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/have-a-headache-the-top-7-triggers-2020033019330
  10. Harvard Health Publishing. Stopping the vicious cycle of rebound headaches. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/stopping-the-vicious-cycle-of-rebound-headaches-2019110718180
  11. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Headaches: What You Need To Know. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/headaches-what-you-need-to-know
  12. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Dietary Supplements for Headaches: What the Science Says. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/dietary-supplements-for-headaches-science

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