Headache After Surgery? Here’s How to Treat It

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Headaches are not uncommon after surgery. Many factors may contribute to this, such as the type of surgery, having a history of headaches, stress, and the type of anesthesia.

Following surgery, headache pain can be stressful, exhausting, and make your recovery more complex. If you experience a postoperative headache, there may be options to help you find relief.

This article explains why headaches occur after surgery, their symptoms and treatment, and how to prevent headaches from occurring.

Women with headache

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Causes

Headaches fall into two main categories: primary and secondary.

  • A primary headache occurs as a disorder in and of itself and is unrelated to another condition. The most common primary headaches are migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches.
  • A secondary headache occurs as a result or symptom of an underlying health condition. Examples of what might cause a secondary headache include high blood pressure, trauma, infection, or head injury.

Migraines are a neurological condition triggered by environmental causes, a major one being stress. They can occur after surgery for many reasons, including from the stress of the surgery itself. They can also occur depending on the surgery type or from the effects of general anesthesia.

Anesthesia

The three types of anesthesia are:

  • General: This type of anesthesia puts a patient to sleep for the duration of surgery.
  • Regional: This type of anesthesia numbs a specific body area while the patient remains awake.
  • Local: This anesthesia is used for minor surgeries and numbs a small area of the body.

Regional anesthesia injected into the area that surrounds the spinal cord may lead to a spinal headache. These occur if some cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks out during the procedure.

There are two types of regional anesthesia procedures that most commonly result in a spinal headache. They are:

  • Spinal anesthetic: Anesthetic for surgeries that require numbing of the lower half of the body such as in lower abdominal, pelvic, or rectal surgery, or a spinal block for childbirth.
  • Epidural anesthetic: A spinal headache can occur following regional anesthesia for an epidural during childbirth.

Surgery Type

It's possible to have a headache following any type of surgery.

However, they are more common with surgeries that involve the head or face. This is because the nerves there are sensitive and can be damaged during surgery. Surgery can exacerbate an existing headache disorder or cause a post-traumatic headache.

The most common surgery types that cause headaches include:

  • Craniotomy (opening the skull) for brain surgery
  • Dental surgery or tooth extraction
  • Sinus surgery
  • Surgery involving head lacerations or head trauma

Stress or Anxiety

The American Migraine Foundation reports that stress is the number one trigger in people who experience migraines, accounting for 50%–70% of those who experience them.

Stress, which releases the stress hormone cortisol, may indirectly cause headaches after surgery, because having surgery is a stressful and anxiety-provoking event. Also, health conditions related to the surgery may increase stress levels.

Other

Other reasons that a headache may occur after surgery include:

Symptoms

The symptoms you may experience with a post-operative headache depend on the type of headache you have.

The most common type of headache—and one that can occur after surgery—is called a tension headache. Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Mild or moderate pain
  • Slow onset
  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • Consistent pain but not throbbing

Fortunately, most tension headaches respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications like Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). Talk with your healthcare provider before taking any medications after surgery.

Migraine symptoms might include:

  • Moderate or severe pain
  • Throbbing pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Light sensitivity
  • Mood changes

If you are recovering from surgery involving regional anesthesia for an epidural or spinal block and are experiencing a spinal headache, symptoms can include:

  • Intense headache pain, especially on the front of the head
  • Headache that becomes worse when standing
  • Neck stiffness
  • Hearing loss
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea or vomiting

Treatment

Headaches following surgery can be frustrating and painful, especially for patients who wish to focus on rehabilitation and recovery. But, fortunately, there are treatments available to help manage headache pain.

Some treatments include:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Drinking caffeine
  • Rest
  • OTC medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Alternative treatments, such as meditation or visualization

If you have a spinal headache that lasts for more than one or two days, your healthcare provider may recommend an epidural blood patch (EBP).

This procedure involves injecting a small amount of the patient's own blood into the space where the CSF leak is. This process can help seal the leak, allowing cerebrospinal pressure to restore to normal and eliminate the headache.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Contact your healthcare provider if your headache is accompanied by other neurological symptoms unrelated to your surgery, such as:

  • Weakness
  • Loss of balance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Personality changes
  • Seizures
  • Vision loss or changes

You should also contact your healthcare provider if your headache persists despite treatment or causes significant disability.

Summary

Headaches are not uncommon after surgery and can result from anesthesia, the type of surgery, stress, or other causes. Surgery of the brain, head, or face also may increase the chance of having a headache after surgery. Symptoms and level of severity depend on the type of headache. After surgery, treatment includes drinking plenty of water, caffeine, rest, and over-the-counter pain medications.

A Word From Verywell 

Headaches after surgery can be very painful and make recovery difficult. If you experience one, you may feel overwhelmed and need relief. Fortunately, there are many treatments available that can help. Discuss your pain-relief options with your healthcare provider to find the best treatment plan for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to get a headache after general anesthesia?

    Headaches usually don't occur after general anesthesia, but they are not uncommon, either. Headaches are more common after regional anesthesia for a spinal block or epidural. Patients may develop a spinal headache if some cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leaks during the procedure.

  • How long does it take for anesthesia to completely leave your system?

    In general, it can take about 24 hours for anesthetic medications to leave your system.

  • How long do the effects of general anesthesia last?

    General anesthesia is an anesthetic that puts people to sleep for the duration of their surgery. The length of time the effects of general anesthesia last depends on the surgery's length.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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