4 Headache Locations and What They Mean

Most people will experience a headache at some point in their life. Determining the type of headache a person has is key to knowing how to manage it best. It's also important for deciding if and when they should seek medical attention.

The location of the headache—whether it's the entire head, one side of the head, the front of the head, or the back of the head—is a good first step in sorting out headache type.

This article discusses possible primary and secondary causes of headaches based on the location of the head pain. It also briefly reviews the treatment of common headache disorders.

When to See a Healthcare Provider for a Headache - Illustration by Jessica Olah

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Primary vs. Secondary Headaches

Primary headaches, like tension-type headaches and migraines, exist on their own. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying health issue, such as an illness, pregnancy, or a medication.

Entire Head

Headaches felt over the entire head are referred to as "generalized" headaches. They are not localized to a single area like the forehead or the back of the head.

Primary

Primary headaches that may be felt over the entire head include:

  • Tension-type headaches cause pressure on both sides of the head that can feel like you have a band over your head. They may be associated with sensitivity to light or sound.
  • Migraine headaches cause a throbbing sensation on either both sides or one side of the head. They worsen with physical activity, tend to be more debilitating than tension-type headaches, and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Secondary

Secondary headaches that may be felt over the entire head include:

  • A postinfection headache is typically described as throbbing or pressing and is most often caused by viruses like the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19.
  • A post-traumatic headache may occur after a concussion (brain injury) and cause a pressing sensation. Associated symptoms include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and memory problems.
  • Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It causes a generalized headache, fever, and a stiff neck.
  • A headache from a brain tumor feels like a dull migraine or tension-type headache. It may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
  • A headache from an ischemic stroke (when an artery that supplies blood to the brain is blocked) may resemble a migraine or tension-type headache.
  • A thunderclap headache may arise from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is a type of hemorrhagic stroke (when an artery in the brain bursts open and bleeds). This headache manifests as a severely painful, sudden, and explosive headache.

One Side of the Head

Headaches are sometimes felt only on one side of the head.

Primary

Primary headaches associated with one-sided head pain include:

  • Migraine headaches frequently occur on one side of the head, although they can occur all over the head.
  • Cluster headaches manifest as excruciatingly severe pain in or around the eye or temple on one side of the head. These headaches are often accompanied by facial flushing and sweating, eye redness and tearing, stuffy nose, and restlessness.
  • Hemicrania continua manifests as persistent, daily pain on one side of the head for three or more months. This rare type of headache may be accompanied by redness or tearing of the eye, runny or stuffy nose, sweating, or facial flushing on the same side as the headache.
  • Paroxysmal hemicrania causes severe throbbing or "claw-like" one-sided headache pain that begins and ends abruptly. This rare headache is generally located around or behind the eye or in the temple area. Less commonly, the pain may occur in the forehead or the back of the head.

Secondary

Secondary headaches associated with one-sided head pain include:

  • Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a type of vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation) in branches of a large neck artery. A GCA headache is severe and can occur anywhere but is often localized to one side of the head near the temple. Other symptoms include scalp tenderness, vision changes, jaw pain when chewing, and unintended weight loss.
  • Cervicogenic headache manifests as one-sided pain that starts in the neck and spreads to the front of the head. It may be accompanied by neck stiffness and arm pain on the same side of the headache.
  • A post-traumatic headache may be felt on one or both sides of the head. Like a migraine, it tends to worsen with physical activity.

Front of the Head

A headache located at the front of your head is sometimes called a forehead or frontal headache.

Primary

Primary headaches associated with forehead pain include:

  • Tension-type headaches are often felt all over the head, yet they usually start at the forehead before moving around to the back of the head.
  • Migraines may be felt mainly in the forehead area, either on one or both sides of the head.
  • Cluster headaches are always localized to one side of the head, usually near the temple, eye, and/or forehead.

Headache Triggers

Tension-type and migraine headaches share many triggers, including stress, lack of sleep, not eating on time, caffeine withdrawal, and alcohol use. Smoking and drinking alcohol are possible triggers of cluster headaches.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches associated with forehead pain include:

  • Sinus headaches commonly cause a sensation of heaviness or pressure in the forehead or cheekbones. They arise from a viral or bacterial sinus infection or allergies. Accompanying symptoms may include a stuffy nose and nasal discharge.
  • Giant cell arteritis usually occurs near the temples but can also occur over the forehead.

Back of the Head

Headaches may be localized to the back of the head.

Primary

Tension-type headaches classically feel like a band around the head. In some cases, though, they may be concentrated on the back of the head.

Secondary

Secondary headaches that cause pain in the back of the head include:

  • Occipital neuralgia develops when one of the occipital nerves (they travel from the top part of the spinal cord to the back of the skull) becomes trapped, irritated, or damaged. The headache is piercing or throbbing and moves from the base of the skull toward the sides and front of the head. 
  • Spontaneous intracranial hypotension occurs when there is low spinal fluid pressure in the brain. It causes a severe headache that is typically located in the back of the head. The headache is worse when standing or sitting and resolves after lying down.
  • Cervicogenic headaches are one-sided headaches but start in the neck and spread from the back of the head to the front. They may stem from arthritis of the upper spine, a pinched nerve, or trauma.
What Your Headache Location May Mean
Pain Location Primary Headache Secondary Headache
Entire head Tension-type or migraine Postinfection headache, post-traumatic headache, meningitis, brain tumor, stroke
One side of head Migraine, cluster, hemicrania continua, paroxysmal hemicrania  Giant cell arteritis, cervicogenic headache, post-traumatic headache
Front of head Tension-type, migraine, or cluster Sinus headache, giant cell arteritis
Back of head Tension-type Occipital neuralgia, spontaneous intracranial hypotension, cervicogenic headache
Please note this is not a complete list of all headache causes.

When to See a Doctor

Most headaches will go away on their own with medication or simple strategies like rest or addressing the underlying trigger.

That said, to ensure nothing more concerning is occurring, it's important to promptly see a healthcare provider in the following circumstances:

  • Your headaches are occurring more frequently or are interfering with your daily routine.
  • You have a headache and a history of cancer or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS.
  • You are age 65 and over and are experiencing a new type of headache.
  • Your headache is set off by sneezing, coughing, or exercising.
  • You are experiencing rebound headaches from taking painkillers regularly (indicative of possible medication overuse headache).
  • You are pregnant or have just given birth and are experiencing a new headache or a change in your headaches.

Seek Emergent Medical Attention

Go to your emergency room or call 911 right away if:

  • Your headache begins suddenly and becomes severe within a few seconds or minutes.
  • Your headache is severe and associated with a fever or stiff neck.
  • Your headache is accompanied by a painful red eye, seizure, confusion, passing out, weakness, numbness, or difficulty seeing.
  • Your headache developed after a head injury.

Treatment

The treatment of your headache depends on headache type and severity.

Most primary headaches can be treated with the following medications:

  • Tension-type headaches are generally treated effectively with an over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen).
  • Mild to moderate migraines can also be treated with an NSAID. More severe migraines are usually treated with a triptan like Imitrex (sumatriptan) or a combination NSAID/triptan like Treximet.
  • For people with migraines who cannot take or tolerate a triptan, a calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) blocker, such as Ubrelvy (ubrogepant) or Nurtec ODT (rimegepant), may be tried.
  • For cluster headaches, oxygen treatment (inhaling oxygen through a facemask) is recommended first.

The treatment of secondary headaches requires addressing the underlying issue. For example, a saline or corticosteroid nasal spray—and sometimes an antibiotic (if a bacterial sinus infection is suspected)—is used to manage a sinus headache.

Likewise, high doses of corticosteroids (or simply "steroids") are used to treat giant cell arteritis and a nerve block (injection of a local anesthetic into a nerve) may be used to treat occipital neuralgia.

Summary

The location of your headache can provide insight into the type of headache you are experiencing. Most headaches are either tension-type headaches or migraines. Secondary headaches are less common and arise from an underlying health issue.

A Word From Verywell

While headaches are very common, it can be tricky getting to the bottom of why you are experiencing them. Be sure to work closely with your healthcare provider as you navigate the diagnostic process. Also, remain safe by not taking any medication without getting the OK from your healthcare provider first.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does a headache last?

    The duration of a headache depends on the type and whether it's treated or not with medication. For example, an untreated tension-type headache can last up to seven days. An untreated migraine can last up to 72 hours.

  • What can you take for a headache when you’re pregnant?

    If possible, it's best to resort to non-medication options for treating a headache during pregnancy. You might try taking a nap in a dark, quiet room or applying a cool compress to your head. Reach out to your healthcare provider if your headache is new, persistent, worsening, or severe.

15 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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By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.