Have you ever felt like someone’s stabbing your face with an ice pick? What you had wasn’t just an ordinary headache; it’s likely you had a “Primary stabbing headache” otherwise known as ice pick headache. This kind of headache is enough to cause you an intense pain and make you entertain the fear of death in your mind. But not to worry, ice pack headache is not as dangerous as you think, and it can be easily handled.
A lot of the sufferers of this form of headache are confused because of the fact that the real causes are not understood. However, this post will shed light on the causes, signs and symptoms, and how to get rid of the problem.
What is an Ice Pick Headache?
Ice pick headaches are short, severe, stabbing headaches that can be extremely frightening. Generally, these headaches only last for between 5 and 30 seconds during an attack. They normally come out of nowhere and can hit any part of your head, producing a feeling as if your head is being struck with an ice pick. The pain disappears as soon as possible, even before you realize what has just happened. Sometimes, it looks like the pain is occurring in or behind the ear.
Under the International Headache Society’s (HIS) criteria, the headache is officially known as “Primary Stabbing Headache”. The term “ice pick headache” has been used because it describes the headache better, though some other terms like jab and jolts, idiopathic stabbing headache, and ophthalmodynia periodica have all been used to describe it.
In some cases, ice pick headaches happen before or during an attack of migraine, though they are not a part of the migraine attack. They are known to occur in about 2% of the population, mostly in people with cluster headaches or migraine.
What does an Ice pick headache feel like?
Ice pick headaches can best be described as sharp, stabbing pains that occur as a single stab or succession of stabs, usually in the eye, orbit, parietal regions or temporal. Some sufferers have also described it as stabbing pain behind the ears. When the stabs occur, they usually stay for a few seconds, but they may recur several times a day, usually at irregular intervals.
Ice pick headaches are commoner in people who suffer from migraine. The headache is difficult to treat because of the way it comes and goes fast, before you can even consider taking anything for it. The headache can come alone or in company of migraine or cluster headaches.
People who have ice pick headache often describe it as “it looks like someone is stabbing their face with an ice pick”. The pain feels sharp and stabbing in nature. It does not last long but may sometimes recur several times.
Are ice pick headaches something to worry about?
Ice pick headache is not something to worry about as their attack is usually transient and may not even require any medication before it goes off. Since there are also no known severe symptoms that accompany the problem, there is no need to worry about it. The condition is usually not harmful and there are no known complications following attacks.
However, when the frequency of attacks becomes too much, then it should give you a cause for concern. Excessive attacks could be a signal to something more than what you are seeing on the surface. In that case, seeing a doctor would be advisable.
Ice pick headaches are first noticed in people between ages 45 and 50 years. It is usually not found in children. So, if you notice it quite earlier, that should be a cause of concern. Otherwise, it is not what you should really worry about.
It is difficult to associate ice pick headache with any other symptoms and signs as they normally occur alone without other known symptoms. Studies have also not been able to establish a link between them and any neurological disorder. The condition is not a symptom of something else but a diagnosis in itself. This is why it s difficult to pinpoint the symptoms.
However, here are the symptoms that enable you understand what ice pick headache is:
- Pain in the head occurring as a single stab or sequence of stabs
- Pain predominantly or exclusively felt around the eyes, orbit, parietal or temporal.
- Stabs that stay for a few seconds and come back again with frequencies that are not regular, varying from one to several of them daily.
- Pain has no other symptoms that come with it
- Headache is not attributable to any other known disorder.
- Swollen watery eyes
- Drooping eyelids
- Constriction of the pupil (on one eye or both)
- If the above describe your condition, then you are most likely to be suffering from ice pick headache or idiopathic stabbing headache.
The actual cause of ice pick headache is unknown, hence the name “Idiopathic stabbing headache”. However, doctors have tried to link the condition to certain problems. The main condition they have linked it with is head injury. It has been posited that head injury leads to an abnormal signal from the brain which eventually produces the stabbing headache. The mechanism behind this has not been fully understood.
Some doctors also think that ice pick headache is not caused by any injury; they simply conclude that the brain sends out an abnormal signal for unknown reasons, thereby causing the stabbing pain which the sufferer receives. Whatever be the case, there is a consensus that the brain is sending out an abnormal signal which gives rise to the pain.
Other suggested causes include cranial lesion, blood vessel disease, herpes, etc. However, it must be noted that none of the suggested causes has been scientifically proven to actually be the culprit. Ice pick headache is believed to be a diagnosis in itself; it is not the symptom of another disease condition or something more serious.
Apart from brain injury which has been suspected to be the main cause of ophthalmodynia periodica, certain predisposing factors have also been implicated as triggers that bring about the attack. These triggers are not the actual cause of the problem, their presence only helps to activate the attacks. These triggers include:
Stress: Stress is generally known to trigger headaches or other health problems, through the release of the stress hormone that causes complex reactions in the body. This may explain how stress triggers ice pick headache.
Sudden movement: The way this triggers the attack is not quite clear.
How do I get rid of Ice pick headache?
Since some causes and triggering factors for this condition are known, it would be wise to handle those factors in order to put it under control. So, what do you do?
- Minimize stress: Since stress has been implicated or suspected to be a triggering factor, you should try as much as possible to reduce stress. You need to observe adequate rest and sleep. Adequate sleep for an adult is between 6 and 8 hours per night. Observing some rest means taking some time off your extra activities and schedules. Avoid working round the clock.
- Some even recommend practicing stress-relieving meditation techniques. Meditation brings relaxation and helps in getting rid of stress. If you understand how to do them and apply the right ones (there are different types of meditations), you are sure to get some relief from this monster.
- Exercise: Exercises help in relaxing the muscles, improving blood supply to the vital organs of the body, including the brain, and in reducing stress. Simple aerobics and other forms of exercises like walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and running can be of help in fighting the effects of stress and reducing the occurrences of ice pick headaches.
- Besides, yoga practices can also help to relieve the frequency and severity of ice pick headaches.
- Eat balanced diet: It is also suggested that eating healthy, balanced diets could go a long way at helping to put the condition under check. Junk foods are not good for the body and they usually put the body under stress as well. So, you must try as much as possible to avoid them. Eating the right quantity of diets with the right proportions of nutrients helps to work optimally and reduce any form of stress mounted against it.
- Indocin: The use of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs like Indocin also helps in relieving the pain. Because of the mode of occurrence of this condition, taking treatments are a bit tricky and difficult. However, over-the-counter drugs like Indocin (Indomethacin) at just 12.5mg to be taken 2 to 3 times daily can help prevent frequent attacks or handle an ongoing attack. This drug must not be used on a regular basis because of some unpleasant side effects associated with it. Some of those side effects include heart burns, intestinal bleeding, impaired vision, stroke and renal problems.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is also believed to play a major role in managing ice pick headaches. Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the body for the regulation of sleep and also used as medication for insomnia (lack of sleep). Melatonin is a non-prescription medication which you can easily get over the counter. This should help to relieve the stress that comes with sleeplessness. But it has some side effects which you need to be careful of. The side effects include fatigue and dizziness.
- Antidepressants: Some antidepressants are thought to help in relieving the problems too. But a word of caution here: don’t go on any antidepressant drugs without first consulting with your doctor as their side effects could make something worse for you. Your doctor or psychiatrist should be able to determine what kind of antidepressant you should take if you really need them. Taking the wrong antidepressant could push you into some over-excitement. It’s really not too advisable to go on this; other recommended drugs have to be tried first before even giving it a consideration.
- See your doctor: Your doctor is in a better position to determine what type of headache you have, and the possible causes as well as the best treatment to adopt. It is possible your ice pick headache may be something more serious than you previously thought. Though not usually a serious condition, there is the need to see a doctor if the frequency and intensity of ice pick headache are getting worse than usual.
Note: It is not easy to determine what really works for ice pick headaches. While some advocate preventive management, others feel it is okay to take some over-the-counter drugs like the Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory drugs whenever there is an attack. Unfortunately, both advices have their own limitations. For example, preventive measures would mean taking those non-prescription drugs like indomethacin for the purpose of preventing an attack. But such drug is known to pose a danger when used for a long time. Again, waiting to treat the condition when there is an attack, also mean that you may not be able to do anything as attacks usually disappear even before you go for your drugs.
However, as an individual, you should watch yourself properly to know what works for you and what does not. If your attacks occur at frequent intervals, then you should consider using the recommended painkillers
Ice pick headache or Primary stabbing headache is not quite common; it only affects just about 2% of the population. It should also not be a source of excessive worries since its attack is usually transient. However, if you have the condition, you can get relief by following the tips we have outlined in this post.
Observing adequate rest and sleep, minimizing stress, eating a balanced diet, taking some Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, and practicing yoga are a few advices we have provided. The tips we outlined in this post are known to work very well and you can try any of them to help solve your ice pick headache issue. But if you notice that none of the suggestions has worked for you, you must see your doctor for further investigations and management.