Skip to main content
ice pick headaches

What is an Ice Pick Headache?

This short-lived headaches packs a major punch.

Ice pick headaches (also known as ‘primary stabbing headaches’)i are among the most painful types of headaches you can experience. One second you feel fine, and the next? Well, as the name so perfectly describes, it can feel a bit like you’ve been hit in the back of the head with an ice pick.

But exactly what is an ice pick headache? And are ice pick headaches something to worry about, or are they simply another type of everyday headache? Find out more about ice pick headache symptoms, causes and treatment options below.

Signs and Symptoms of Ice Pick Headaches

Unlike many tension headaches or migraines that occur with an aura, ice pick headaches come on abruptly, with no warning signs. They are also known for their intensity. If you do get one, you will likely experience the following:i, ii, iii

Sharp, stabbing-type pain towards the top of the head (around one eye or the temple)

Very short-term pain (usually under three seconds) that disappears suddenly

Pain that ‘zigzags’ from one side of the head to the other between attacks

Pain that may recur several times over the same day

Fortunately, ice pick headaches do have at least one small silver lining: they often last for just a few seconds before completely vanishing as abruptly as they arrived.

Causes of Ice Pick Headaches

You may be wondering, What causes ice pick headaches?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t clear, since the causes of ice pick headaches are still not fully understood – though there is some evidence to suggest that they are caused by a breakdown in the brain’s central pain control centers.iv Ice pick headaches are also considered to be ‘primary’ headaches, meaning there isn’t an underlying condition that is causing the headache.i, iv

Thankfully, these short, sharp headache pains are estimated to occur in only 2% of the general population. However, people who suffer from migraines or cluster headaches are more likely to experience ice pick headaches. They are relatively uncommon in children and teenagers.iv

Find out more about headache causes.

Are Ice Pick Headaches Dangerous?

Ice pick headaches on their own are not dangerous, but people who experience new ice pick headaches should seek medical advice. This is because the type of pain experienced during an ice pick headache can also be the result of a more serious brain issue, including trigeminal neuralgia (a chronic facial pain condition) and other brain conditions.i, iv In extremely rare cases, the sudden and severe type of pain that characterizes ice pick headaches can also be caused by an aneurysm (bleed in the brain), however this is unlikely.v

In any case, it is best to have your ice pick headaches properly diagnosed by a doctor as soon as possible to help rule out any of these issues.

Ice Pick Headache Treatment

Understandably, the painful and erratic nature of ice pick headaches at any time of the day or night may cause some anxiety for people who experience them. The good news is that most ice pick headaches only occur a handful of times over a day and often disappear on their own – but some more chronic headaches may require treatment.i, iv So, how do you get rid of ice pick headaches?

Treatment for ice pick headaches is challenging given their short duration, since the pain often comes on and then disappears before medication can even be taken. However, there is some positive news for chronic sufferers, as some preventive medication is available.

Indomethacin, an anti-inflammatory medicine, may help to prevent ice pick headaches from occurring.i, iv If you are suffering from ice pick headaches, speak to your doctor about whether indomethacin could be right for you, since it can cause some side effects.

Find out more about headache treatments and headache relief with Excedrin.


  1. Ice pick headaches. American Migraine Foundation. Accessed 24/06/20.
  2. Stabbing, Ice Pick Headaches? When You Should See a Doctor. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 24/06/20.
  3. Headaches: Less Common Types in Children and Adolescents. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed 24/06/20.
  4. Case studies: Ice pick headache. National Headache Foundation. Accessed 25/06/20.
  5. Warning Signs/Symptoms. Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Accessed 25/06/20.

Become a headache expert.
Sign up for the 5-week Headache Boot Camp