There are many reasons why a headache can occur in the top part of the head. Tension is a common cause, but there are other causes. Some causes may require medical attention.
In some cases, a person may need to consult a doctor about a headache, especially if it is severe, persistent, or occurs with other symptoms.
This article will explain some causes of headaches which affect the top part of the head, why they happen, and when to seek medical help.
1. Tension headache
Tension-type headaches are some of the most common headaches. Experts sometimes call them muscle contraction tension headaches. While muscular tension may play a role, it is not clear exactly why tension headaches happen. Other possible causes include vitamin deficiencies and genetic factors. One study has suggested that at least 78% of people experience a tension-type headache at some time.
In a tension-type headache, the pain feels as if it is squeezing or adding weight to an area, such as the top of the head. People will also feel pain in their neck or shoulders in some cases.
People often describe the pain from tension headaches as dull and say it does not throb or pulsate. Tension headaches are usually uncomfortable but not severe. Tension headaches can last from 30 minutes to a week, but the average duration is 4–6 hours.
2. Migraine headache
Headache is one of the symptoms of migraine. Migraine headaches affect up to 12% of the population, including 17% of females and 6% of males. Migraine headaches are less common than tension headaches but can be more severe.
The pain may feel as if it radiates from the top of the head, along one side, or down the back of the neck. The pain can be severe and throbbing and occur along with other symptoms, including nausea and extreme sensitivity to light or sound.
Genetic factors appear to play a role, but many people with this condition find that specific factors can cause migraine headaches. These factors include stress, weather changes, sleep problems, and hormonal changes.
3. Chronic headaches
There are different types of chronic, or persistent, headache. These types include tension-type headaches and migraine headaches.
A doctor will diagnose a chronic tension-type headache if a person has a tension-type headache on at least 15 days a month for 3 months or longer. Chronic migraine headaches also occur on at least 15 days a month for 3 months or longer, and that person will have migraine symptoms on at least 8 days a month.
The symptoms will depend on the type of headache, but some can cause pain near the top of the head. Lifestyle factors, such as stress and lack of sleep, can influence chronic tension headaches.
4. Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches occur suddenly on one side of the head, often behind the eye, and they cause severe pain as well as nasal congestion or a runny nose, and a watery eye. Cluster headaches are rare, affecting around 1 in 1,000 people.
Cluster headaches may involve changes in the trigeminal nerve, the hypothalamus, and blood vessel dilation. However, experts do not know exactly why cluster headaches happen. Cluster headaches can occur in response to factors such as watching television, drinking alcohol, hot weather, and stress.
Cluster headache can last from several weeks to a few months, but may then stop for several years. During a headache attack, a person may find it hard to get rest or relief.
5. Sinus headaches
Sickness or infection can inflame the sinuses, resulting in pain in the sides and top part of the head. The symptoms usually disappear when a person treats the underlying issue. A doctor may recommend medications to help with inflammation. People with long-term sinus problems may need surgery.
6. Sleep deprivation headache
Sleep disruption can lead to headaches, but headaches can also worsen sleep problems. Tension-type headaches may occur when a lack of sleep causes the body to release less of a chemical known as orexin. Orexin plays a role in nervous system function, sleep, and arousal.
A lack of sleep is also one cause of an early morning headache.
7. Nighttime headaches
Hypnic headaches can cause a person to wake up from sleep, usually at the same time each night. Hypnic headaches usually last at least 15 minutes and tend to affect people aged over 50 years. Doctors do not know why hypnic headaches happen, but there may be links with pain management, REM sleep, or melatonin production.
Occipital neuralgia is the irritation to the nerves leading from the spine to the top part of the head. This condition can cause pain in the back or top part of the head.
A person may feel as if they have a tight band on their head. That person may also experience tingling sensation or pain. The scalp may feel painful and that person’s eyes can be sensitive to light.
Possible causes of occipital neuralgia include:
- trauma to the back of the head
- pinching of the nerves due to tight neck muscles
- nerve compression resulting from osteoarthritis
- a tumor in the neck
A doctor will carry out tests to look for an underlying cause, although sometimes there is no clear cause.
9. Headache due to medication overuse
Frequent use of over-the-counter or prescription pain relief medicine can result in overuse or rebound headaches. People with persistent migraine are especially prone to headaches due to medicine overuse.
A doctor will consider the possibility of headache due to medicine overuse if a person has a diagnosis of a primary headache condition and experiences headaches on at least 15 days a month.
10. Cold temperature
Exposure to cold temperatures may cause a headache. The ache spreads from the front of the head toward the top part of the head. The headache can happen when eating frozen foods or consuming very cold drinks.
The scientific term for this type of headache is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, as it affects the sphenopalatine ganglion. This ganglion is linked to nerves in the sinuses.
When a person eats something cold, a sharp, severe pain hits the top part of their head and lasts only a few seconds. The ache disappears once the cold temperature in the head has dissipated. However, experts have also linked the sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia to other types of headaches, including cluster headache and migraine headache.
11. Headache due to exertion
Some people develop a throbbing headache when they do sudden, intense exertion, such as running sprints or having sex. Doctors call this type of headache an exertional headache. Headache due to exertion may be due to a rise in blood pressure, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
However, there is also evidence that exercise can help reduce migraine headaches.
Eating some protein source, such as nuts, around 1.5 hours before exercising, drinking a plenty of water, and warming up may all help reduce the risk.
Anyone who experiences a severe headache after exercising or has concerns about the impact of exercise on headaches should seek medical advice.
12. Other causes
High blood pressure rarely causes a headache. But the American Heart Association notes that blood pressure of 180/120 mmHg or higher may cause headache.
In rare cases, a head injury, stroke, or brain abscess can cause a condition known as intracranial hypertension, where pressure builds up around the brain. This condition can cause a throbbing headache, vision changes, nausea, and other symptoms.
A severe and sudden headache may be a sign of reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome due to a life-threatening condition, such as bleeding in the brain or a stroke. This type of headache needs immediate medical attention.
There are not many muscles on the top part of the head, but they may play a role in some types of headaches. A tightening of the neck and head muscles may play a role in tension-type headaches. Around the head, excessive muscle contraction may reduce blood supply and lead to the release of substance P, which can worsen pain.
Treatment of headache on the top part of the head
There are several ways of treating a headache in the top part of the head, depending on the cause.
These ways include:
- over-the-counter pain relief, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID)
- dietary measures, such as consuming more water and reducing alcohol intake
- massage, including self-massaging the head and neck
- relaxation techniques
- reducing stress levels with breathing exercises or yoga
- getting the right amount of sleep
- seeing a physical or massage therapist
- cool compress for the head
If a doctor identifies a specific reason for a headache, the doctor will offer treatment to address that cause.
When do you need to see a doctor?
A person should seek medical help if they have:
- a severe, sudden headache
- persistent headaches that do not respond to treatment at home
- other symptoms, such as nausea and vision changes
A doctor may prescribe medications or carry out tests to see whether there is an underlying cause that needs specific treatment.
There are many reasons why a headache may affect the top part of the head. Tension-type headaches are the most common cause and often respond to treatment at home. However, a sudden, severe, or persistent headache may be due to an underlying cause that needs medical treatment.
Anyone experiencing troublesome or persistent symptoms should seek medical help. If a person has a sudden and severe headache, someone need to call an emergency phone number, or take that person to the nearest emergency room.