A throbbing headache usually means a migraine headache.
Six percent of men and 16% of women experience migraine, and the characteristic of migraine pain is a throbbing sensation, which builds to a peak over about an hour from onset.
Migraine is associated with sensory sensitivity, by which I mean these symptoms:
- Intolerance of light or preference for dark
- Nausea or intolerance of smell (osmophobia)
- Worsening with movement
- Intolerance of noise or preference for quiet
In recurrent headaches, and in primary care, a throbbing type of pain is probably helpful in confirming migraine
. However, many people with migraine will only report a throbbing pain during their more severe headaches.
In other migraine headaches they may use the words, sharp, pressure, aching or stabbing. As many as 70% of migraines will have a pressure symptoms associated with it.
In a new onset headache, a throbbing pain could indicate migraine (still the most likely scenario) but can be associated with any of the following severe headache disorders:
- Temporal Arteritis
- Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension
- Carotid Dissection
- Vertebral Dissection
- Exercise Headache
- Sexual Activity Headache
- Intracranial Hypotension - although a non-throbbing pain is more common
The throbbing pain is thought to be due to an increase in the blood supply to the lining of the brain called the meninges
. A common feature of headaches that throb is that they usually involve the blood supply in some way.
Years ago throbbing or pounding headaches were called "vascular headaches" and in fact almost all of the vascular headaches are now known to be migraine.
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