What Causes Headaches Behind the Eyes?

If you've ever had a headache behind the eyes, the feeling of pressure and throbbing pain can be an unpleasant symptom to deal with. This sensation may be caused by a migraine, tension headache, cluster headache, or sinus headache.

Read on to learn what may trigger a headache behind the eyes, when you should consider visiting a healthcare professional, and what treatment options are available to you.

Woman with a headache and hands on temples

Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

Causes

Headaches occur when specific nerves that are tied to muscles, blood vessels, and the brain are activated. The mechanisms that activate these nerves is unknown, but some factors associated with headaches include:

  • Poor posture
  • Dehydration
  • Consuming too much alcohol or caffeine
  • Contracting a cold or the flu
  • Issues with eyesight that lead to eye strain
  • Menstruation
  • Menopause
  • Stress
  • Not eating meals regularly
  • Taking too many painkillers

There are various types of headaches, some of which are better known for causing pain behind the eyes. These include:

  • Cluster headaches
  • Migraines
  • Tension headaches
  • Sinus headaches

Tension Headache

Tension headaches are common, and their symptoms include:

  • Constant aching that may be felt on both sides of the head
  • Tightening of neck muscles
  • Pressure behind the eyes

Tension headaches typically last between 30 minutes and a few hours, but, in some cases, they may persist for days. They can occur at any age but are most common in adults and teenagers. Women are also more likely to have tension headaches than men.

Chronic Tension Headaches

People who have tension headaches more than 15 times a month for three consecutive months are considered to have chronic tension headaches.

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches are a rare, severe form of headache that occur in a group, or cluster.

The pain caused by a cluster headache often comes on suddenly. The pain is located behind or around one eye and usually peaks within 10–15 minutes of onset. Other possible symptoms include:

  • Watery eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Perspiration on the forehead
  • Agitation
  • Swelling of eyelids
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Restlessness

Each cluster headache lasts an average of one to three hours. In some people, they may happen on alternate days and can occur several times a day.

The period of a cluster headache is then followed by a period of remission, when no headaches occur. This period can last from months to even years.

Migraine

Migraine headaches are the sixth most disabling condition in the world. They are characterized by a throbbing pain, typically on one side of the head.

Migraine pain ranges from mild to severe. If not treated, a migraine is likely to progress and become more painful.

Pain may shift sides or impact the area around the eyes, temples, and sinuses. In some people, it might feel as if the whole head is affected by the migraine.

Sinus Headache

A sinus headache usually causes a feeling of pressure in the face. It can cause pain behind the eyes, cheeks, and forehead.

Symptoms of migraine, tension headache, and sinus headaches can be similar, which can make identifying a specific headache type more difficult.

Some studies have found that people who had either self-diagnosed or received a diagnosis of sinus headache found that in more than 80% of cases, people actually had a migraine or tension headache.

Sinus headaches may be accompanied by other symptoms that can affect the eyes, such as redness, tearing, and swelling.

Triggers

A number of factors can trigger a headache. Triggers can range from environmental factors to food or stress levels.

Possible triggers include:

  • Eye strain: If you stare at a screen or focus on something for too long without resting your eyes, the resulting eye strain may lead to a headache behind the eyes.
  • Stress: When you have pent-up tension without the proper stress relief, this can trigger a headache.
  • Scents: Perfumes, household cleaners, scented soaps, haircare products, and air fresheners can also lead to headaches behind the eyes as they may cause blood vessels in the sinuses to swell.
  • Weather: Weather, including changes in humidity and temperature, may cause headaches.
  • Food: Caffeinated drinks, as well as some foods that contain nitrates, may lead to headaches behind the eyes. Both of these naturally occurring chemicals can dilate blood vessels that activate certain nerves and send pain signals to the brain.
  • Sex: For some people, headaches can occur in foreplay or prior to orgasm. This may be due to a buildup of pressure in the neck muscles or in the head.
  • Tooth grinding: Grinding your teeth together at night causes the muscles in the jaw to contract which can trigger a headache.

Treatment

Treatment for headaches will vary based on the kind of headache.

Identifying triggers is an important first step to deciding the appropriate treatment. For instance, if your headaches are triggered by stress, treatment may involve stress management techniques like meditation or exercising regularly.

In some cases, over-the counter (OTC) pain medications may be useful. However, using these medicines too often can have negative health effects.

Those who experience severe or frequent headaches may be prescribed headache medications to stop or prevent a migraine attack. Medications typically used to treat seizures, high blood pressure, or depression may also prevent migraines.

When to Talk to a Healthcare Provider

While headaches are common, you should see a medical professional if your headaches are persistent or if pain-relieving medications do not help. Accompanying symptoms such as vomiting, changes in vision, and jaw pain also warrant a visit to a healthcare provider.

When Is a Headache an Emergency?

You should call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room if:

  • You have experienced a head injury.
  • Your headache is severe and came on suddenly.
  • You experience vision loss.
  • You have a very high temperature.
  • You are confused.
  • You feel drowsy.
  • You are having sudden memory problems.
  • You are having trouble speaking.
  • The whites of your eyes are red.


A Word From Verywell

Headaches are common, but they can sometimes interfere with everyday activities, especially if they are recurring. If you are experiencing uncomfortable headache symptoms or are worried about your health, consider making an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss options for pain relief.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I always wake up with a headache?

    Waking up with a headache can be due to a variety of factors, including sleeping disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, or exploding head syndrome (when a person hears a loud explosion that doesn't really exist prior to waking up).

  • When should you worry about a headache?

    Most headaches can be taken care of with pain relieving medications like aspirin or Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen), but there are some circumstances when you should seek medical attention for headaches. These include:

    • A major change to the pattern of your headaches
    • Changes to personality or mental functioning
    • Headaches that worsen with movement or coughing
    • Painful red eyes that accompany headaches
    • Headaches that cause tenderness in the temples
    • Other accompanying symptoms like stiff neck, slurred speech, numbness, and seizures
    • Headaches that wake you up
  • What can I take for a headache while pregnant?

    Most of the time pregnant women are advised to treat headaches with home remedies. These may include a cold or hot compress, sleep, eating a healthful diet, and relaxation exercises. Migraine medication is not typically recommended for pregnant women.

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11 Sources
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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