What a Headache on the Right Side Means

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Headaches are very common, affecting nearly everyone at some point in their lifetime. Getting to the bottom of your head pain can be tricky, though. There are many headache types, all varying in how they feel and where they are located, among other factors.

This article reviews potential causes of headaches that occur on the right side of your head. It also provides insight into headache treatments and when you should seek medical attention.

What to Know About Right-Sided Headaches - Illustration by Ellen Lindner

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Causes of Right-Sided Headaches

Headaches are generally classified as primary or secondary headaches. Primary headaches exist on their own, whereas secondary headaches arise from pregnancy, medication, trauma, or an underlying illness, including an infection or arthritis in the bones of the neck.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches that may cause pain on the right side of the head include:

Migraine

Migraine is a neurological disorder that occurs in approximately 12% of the population and is more common in females than males.

A migraine headache feels like a throbbing, burning, or drilling pain on one or both sides of the head. The headache can last from hours to three days, and the pain tends to worsen with physical activity.

Other symptoms of a migraine include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Light, sound, and smell sensitivity
  • Nose congestion
  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Anxiety and/or a depressed mood
  • Insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep)

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is a severe, sharp, or stabbing one-sided headache around the eye or temple. These headaches are more common in men and may last up to three hours.

Associated symptoms occur on the same side of the headache and include:

  • Miosis (pupil of eye becomes small)
  • Ptosis (drooping of upper eyelid)
  • Eye tearing and/or redness
  • Stuffy and/or runny nose
  • Facial sweating and/or flushing
  • Unusual skin sensitivity
  • Inability to sit still or lie down

Hemicrania Continua

Hemicrania continua is a rare one-sided headache that is more common in females and occurs daily and continuously without pain-free periods. Along with a daily headache, people experience exacerbations of severe headache pain (a headache on top of a headache).

Hemicrania continua may be accompanied by symptoms that occur on the same side as the headache, such as:

  • Redness or tearing of the eye
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sweating or flushing of the face
  • Feeling of sand in the eye
  • A sensation of ear fullness
  • Restlessness
  • Worsening of the pain with movement

Paroxysmal Hemicrania

Paroxysmal hemicrania is another rare primary headache disorder. It's characterized by brief, severe attacks of one-sided headache pain. The attacks occur at least five times per day and usually last for two to 30 minutes.

As with cluster headaches and hemicrania continua, associated symptoms occur on the same side of the headache. They may include:

  • Eye redness and/or tearing
  • Stuffy and/or runny nose
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Facial sweating and/or flushing
  • Miosis and/or ptosis

SUNCT Syndrome

"SUNCT" stands for short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks with conjunctival injection and tearing. This syndrome causes short, intense attacks of pain on one side of the head, typically around one eye.

SUNCT syndrome is more common in males, and the average age of onset is 50 years old. Associated symptoms include ptosis, eye tearing, a stuffy nose, and facial sweating.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches that may cause pain on the right side of the head include:

Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia causes sudden or continuous episodes of intensely sharp, burning, throbbing, or shock-like pain in the face, including the cheek, jaw, teeth, gums, lips, eye, and forehead. The pain almost always occurs on one side of the face, with the right side being more common than the left.

This rare condition arises from inflammation or compression of the trigeminal nerve (your fifth cranial nerve). Common triggers of the pain include talking, smiling, brushing your teeth, applying makeup, and shaving.

Cervicogenic Headache

A cervicogenic headache is caused by a bone, joint, or soft tissue problem in the neck. It causes one-sided pain that starts in the neck and spreads to the front of the head.

The pain of a cervicogenic headache starts or worsens with neck movement and is usually accompanied by neck stiffness and same-sided arm or shoulder pain.

Headache From Giant Cell Arteritis

Giant cell arteritis (GCA), also referred to as temporal arteritis, is a type of vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation) that affects large- and medium-sized arteries. Most commonly, the arteries in the neck that travel to the head are involved.

The headache of GCA is new in onset, severe, and is classically located over one of the temples. Other symptoms that may be present with GCA include scalp tenderness, jaw claudication (pain when chewing), vision loss, and muscle stiffness and pain.

Ruptured Brain Aneurysm

A ruptured brain aneurysm (when an enlarged artery bursts open and bleeds into the brain) may cause a severe, explosive headache—called a thunderclap headache—that is sometimes localized to one side of the head.

A thunderclap headache reaches maximal intensity within one minute. It may be accompanied by confusion, seizure, passing out, fever, stiff neck, and neurological abnormalities, such as weakness or numbness.

Other Causes of Thunderclap Headache

Besides a ruptured brain aneurysm, a thunderclap headache can occur with other serious health conditions, such as:


Other Types of Headaches

Tension-type headaches are the most common primary headache disorder. Unlike the headaches mentioned above, they tend to cause generalized (all-over) head pain.

Specifically, tension-type headaches cause a gripping or rubber band-like sensation. They are milder in intensity, compared to migraine or cluster headaches, and are associated with light sensitivity or sound sensitivity, but not both.

There are also secondary headaches that mimic migraine or tension-type headaches, and as such, may manifest on one or both sides of the head.

Examples of these secondary headaches include:

  • Postinfectious headaches usually develop from a viral infection like influenza (flu) or COVID-19.
  • Post-traumatic headaches occur after a traumatic brain injury and may be accompanied by dizziness, nausea, and problems concentrating.
  • Brain tumor headaches may be constant and worse at night or early in the morning.
  • Headaches from an ischemic stroke (when an artery that supplies blood to the brain is clogged) usually occur are the same time as any neurological abnormalities.
One-Sided Primary Headaches
  • Migraine

  • Cluster headache

  • Hemicrania continua

  • Paroxysmal hemicrania

  • SUNCT syndrome

Generalized Primary Headaches
  • Tension-type headache

  • Migraine

Treatment

Most headaches, including those felt on the right side of the head, can be treated with a combination of medication and home remedies.

Medication

While mild to moderate migraines are usually treated with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, including Advil or Motrin ibuprofen or Aleve naproxen sodium) more severe migraine attacks typically require a triptan, like Imitrex (sumatriptan), or a combination NSAID/triptan, like Treximet.

For people with migraine who cannot take or tolerate a triptan, a drug that targets a specific serotonin receptor, called Reyvow (lasmiditan), may be recommended. Alternatively, a calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) blocker, such as Nurtec ODT (rimegepant), may be tried.

Cluster headaches are usually treated first by inhaling oxygen. If oxygen isn't helpful, a triptan that is injected or inhaled through the nose is usually tried. Imitrex is available in injectable and inhaled forms.

Hemicrania continua and paroxysmal hemicrania resolve with taking an NSAID called Indocin (indomethacin).

SUNCT syndrome is harder to treat but may respond to corticosteroids or certain anti-seizure drugs like Lamictal (lamotrigine).

The treatment of secondary headaches requires addressing the underlying scenario or health condition.

For example, giant cell arteritis is treated with high doses of corticosteroids (sometimes referred to as steroids)

Trigeminal neuralgia is treated first with medication, typically Tegretol (carbamazepine), Neurontin (gabapentin), or Trileptal (oxcarbazepine).

A cervicogenic headache may be treated with a nerve pain medication called Lyrica (pregabalin). If medication is not effective, an anesthetic (numbing) blockade of the affected joint in the neck may be helpful.

A ruptured brain aneurysm requires emergency brain surgery. The surgeon usually places a clip on the artery to stop it from bleeding into the brain.

Home Remedies

Depending on the type of headache you are experiencing, various home remedies may help relieve your headache pain.

As examples:

  • Migraines may be eased by resting in a dark, quiet room, and placing a cold pack or compress on the area of pain.
  • Cluster headaches may be managed by engaging in deep breathing exercises and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. Limiting alcohol use and not smoking might also be helpful.
  • Cervogenic headaches may be treated with range of motion exercises and stretches (under the guidance of a physical therapist). Neck/head pain can also be possibly soothed by applying either a cold compress or a moist, heated towel for 10- to 15-minute intervals.

When to See a Doctor

Most headaches are not serious or dangerous. There are instances, however, in which your headache warrants medical attention.

Be sure to see your doctor in the following situations:

  • Your headache pattern is changing.
  • Your headache is preventing you from engaging in normal, daily activities.
  • You have a new headache and are over age 65, are pregnant or just gave birth, or have a history of cancer or a weakened immune system.
  • Your headache is triggered by sneezing, coughing, or exercising.
  • You are experiencing a headache associated with taking painkillers regularly.

Seek Emergency Medical Attention

Go to your nearest emergency room if your headache:

  • Is severe, begins abruptly, and/or is the "worst headache of your life"
  • Is severe and accompanied by a painful red eye, high fever, stiff neck, or confusion
  • Is associated with symptoms of a possible stroke, such as weakness, numbness, or vision changes
  • Occurs after a blow to the head


Summary

A headache located on the right side of your head can provide a clue about the type of headache you are experiencing. While most one-sided headaches are migraines, some may stem from an underlying problem with the nerves, blood vessels, or other structures located within your neck, face, or brain.

A Word From Verywell

Headaches can be a frustrating phenomenon. Their cause is often complex, and they differ vastly in location, severity, associated symptoms, and how they feel.

If you or a loved one is suffering from headaches, don't hesitate to see a headaches specialist. While it may take some time to sort out your headache diagnosis, try to remain as committed as possible to your care. With the right treatment plan, you can ultimately achieve the relief you deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When should you worry about a headache?

    Most headaches are not dangerous. However, you should see your healthcare provider if your headache pattern is changing or your headaches begin interfering with your daily routine.

    Seek emergency medical attention if you experience a severe, sudden headache or a headache associated with a high fever, stiff neck, confusion, symptoms of a stroke, or a blow to the head.

  • How long do headaches usually last?

    How long a headache lasts depends on the type you are experiencing. As examples—tension-type headaches last 30 minutes to seven days, migraines last four to 72 hours, and cluster headaches last 15 minutes to three hours.

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