What Causes It?
The International Classification of Headache Disorders considers ice pick headache to be a “primary stabbing headache,” possibly caused by transient disturbances in the brain’s pain-controlling processes. When the pain affects the eyes, it’s referred to as ophthalmodynia periodica.
What Are the Symptoms?
As the name suggests, ice pick headache feels like short, sharp strikes to the head. Common symptoms include:
- Pain that lasts between 3 and 120 seconds at a time
- Stabbing pain on top, front, or sides of the head
- Can occur dozens of times a day
- May cause nausea and dizziness for a small subset of people
How Is It Diagnosed?
In order to diagnose an ice pick headache, the healthcare professional will consider a patient’s medical history and may conduct lab tests and imaging to first rule out other potential head pain conditions, such as cluster headache or trigeminal neuralgia. Cranial autonomic symptoms such as excessive tearing, red eyes/face, or runny, stuffy nose would eliminate a diagnosis of ice pick headache.
How Is It Treated?
An ice pick headache will typically disappear on its own within a few days. Until it does, patients are advised to follow typical strategies for headache relief, including:
- Getting plenty of rest in a dark and cool room
- Avoiding stressful environments or situations, and following meditation practices or low-impact physical activities to help decrease stress
- Staying well-nourished and well-hydrated
In rare instances where ice pick headache lingers, medication can help — for example, indomethacin, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, is one of the best-studied treatments for this condition. Melatonin may be recommended to encourage good sleep.
Is It Preventable?
Preventive strategies to help lower the risk of ice pick headache and other head pain disorders include:
- Eating a well-balanced diet and not skipping meals
- Maintaining good quality of sleep
- Managing stress
- Mindful consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and pain medication