Ice Pick Headaches – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

woman-with-headacheMost people call them ice-pick headaches, which is understandable because the name is so descriptive. Other names that have been given to this particular type of headache, although not quite as commonly used, are primary stabbing, idiopathic stabbing, and jabs and jolts headaches and ophthalmodynia periodica. The name “primary stabbing headaches” seems to be a favorite term among medical practitioners, while the last term given suggests that the eyes are somehow involved in having this type of headache, which can be true as it is in the vicinity of one of the eyes where the sharp stabbing pain is often felt. The stabbing pains caused by the headaches can occur anywhere in the head, however. While the most commonly experienced sensation is one of being stabbed in the eye (with an ice pick), pain is sometimes felt in the temples in the back of the head. The word ophthalmodynia comes from the Greek words ophthalmos, meaning eye, and odyne, meaning pain. The meaning of periodica is something that happens more than once, which is somewhat typical of this type of headache.

More is Not Known Than is Known

question-markYou might be tempted to think that any sensation of an ice pick being shoved into your skull would be well understood and have a reasonable explanation as to its cause behind it, but such is not the case. Headaches in general are not always completely understood, although more is known about some types than others. While many of the events that can bring on a headache have been well documented, what actually causes a headache to occur, besides trauma, or a well-understood disease or disorder, is sometimes vague, or isn’t understood at all. What causes the stabbing pains associated with the jabs and jolts types of headache, and why the pain experienced is felt in a particular place in the head by one person and in a different place in the head by the next person, falls into the category of things not yet understood.

Symptoms – and How People Describe Them

  • headache-painThe three most common descriptive terms you’re apt to hear are ‘excruciating‘, ‘unbearable‘ and ‘piercing‘, followed by the phrase ‘but lasting for only a few seconds’.
  • Almost everyone who has had one is in agreement that these are very painful headaches.
  • The pain usually is felt in only one part of the head, but that can be any part of the head.
  • The attacks often occur in the middle of the night.
  • Pain piercing the eyes is the most common symptom. Experiencing a headache that seems to be focused around one or both of the eyes is not uncommon, an example being the sinus headache. Sometimes a headache seems to be centered in the forehead region, but still near the eyes. Ocular migraines affect the vision, although the pain itself may or may not be centered near the eyes. Most headaches that are primarily felt around the eyes are either steady or throbbing by nature and can vary from mild to severe in intensity, but none of them could really be described as being a stabbing headache, unless they happen to be of the ice-pick variety.

There do not appear to be any other observable or associated symptoms.

Whereas occurrences of migraines and some other headache types will sometimes happen on a somewhat predictable basis, or the principal triggers are well-known, an occurrence of an ice-pick headache is almost always totally unpredictable, and the headache itself is almost always of a relatively short duration.

Furthermore, even if these stabbing headaches were to happen periodically and frequently, the results of a comprehensive eye examination taken at the time would most likely be normal and would not indicate something wrong with the eye. Since these headaches are short-lived and cause no physical damage, a real or lasting treatment has never been developed for them.

The Dangers of Ice-Pick Headaches

While ice-pick headaches in themselves are not known to cause any physical damage, even though your nervous system may be suggesting otherwise, they can still at times cause dangerous situations. The danger lies in the fact that the pain, which can sometimes be excruciating, is most often totally unpredictable. There have been cases when people have literally ‘fallen to the floor’ when one of these episodes strikes, and there have also been reported cases where people have lost consciousness. There do not appear to be any instances of one of these attacks being fatal, but if you are driving along the freeway, and you suddenly experience a ‘falling to the floor’ strength headache of this type, the result could potentially be a fatal one. Your autopsy would likely reveal nothing.

Who Is Most At Risk

pie-chartWhile headaches of the “ice pick” type can in theory strike anyone, there are those who are at a greater risk of experiencing them than others.

  • Headaches of this variety are rarely experienced by children.
  • They seem to occur in women more so than in men.
  • The great majority of those who have had one or more of these headaches have been in their upper forties or older.
  • While their behavior might suggest that the headaches bear no relationship to any known disease or disorder, there are some schools of thought that believe they may in some way be related to migraine headaches, cluster headaches, or both. Those who frequently experience migraines or cluster headaches may therefore be at a higher risk, and the statistics tend to bear this out. In other words, the number of occurrences appears to be somewhat higher among those who frequently experience migraine headaches.

Although it has been estimated that about 3 percent of the population in the United States has experienced one or more episodes of these headaches, they would still have to be classified as being rather rare.

Treatments for Ice-Pick Headaches

It’s not easy to treat something that is unpredictable in its comings and goings, does not last long when it does strike, has no known cause, and leaves no damage in its wake. Unless the headache consists of a rapid series of painful events, with one event shortly following another, it can be difficult to know just when to treat the symptoms, even if you knew how to treat them.

  • IndomethacinpillsThe only medication to date that is regularly prescribed for treating an ice-pick headache is indomethacin. Indomethacin is a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). It is available in capsule form, as a liquid, and as a suppository, and while it is most commonly prescribed to combat arthritis, it does provide headache relief, and it may also act as a preventive measure as well.  The trick is to take the medicine as soon as possible after the initial symptoms of pain.  Indomethacin does have some possible short term side effects (indigestion) and some potential long term side effects (serious cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders). This should not be a problem unless you’re taking the medication on a regular basis, in which undergoing a periodic medical examination would be advisable.
  • Other Medications – There are several medications used in treating epilepsy and depression that are sometimes prescribed. Their primary function appears to be to induce a state of relaxation, which is believed to act in a preventive capacity, or at least make occurrences less severe.
  • relaxation-techniqueRelaxation Techniques – Relaxation techniques are also recommended as it is believed that practices such as yoga put people at a lower risk of encountering this type of headaches. There are some indications that those who lead a healthy lifestyle and have healthy eating habits are less prone to experiencing the ice-pick type of headache, although there is little statistical evidence to prove this is the case.
  • keeping-logKeeping a Log – Another approach to take to help prevent these headaches or treat the symptoms if they do occur is to keep a log. If the doctor knows when the headaches are occurring and something of the circumstances under which they occurred, it would help in the diagnosis, and possibly help in finding a remedy.

If you browse through the medical literature or visit the websites of some of the more prominent headache institutes in search of information concerning ice-pick headaches, you might often feel as if you are coming away empty. It’s not that these organizations don’t recognize that this type of headache exists. They certainly do. It’s just that there isn’t a great deal known about it, unlike tension or migraine headache, where a great deal of information is available. If jab and jolt headaches were commonplace, there might be more information about them, at the very least more statistical information, which often does have some value. It may just as well be that these headaches are relatively rare, although that is of little help to anyone who periodically experiences them.