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Headache Behind the Eyes: Causes, Treatment & Relief

Headache behind the eyes is linked to eye strain, tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, and sinus problems. 

To manage headaches effectively, it’s important to determine triggers, so you can effectively avoid them. Treatment includes rest, hydration, pain relievers, and other medications.

man with cataract

Headache Behind the Eyes Defined

A headache behind the eye can be a pain that feels as if it is coming from behind the eye region. It may be throbbing like a pulse or not throbbing. The location of pain may not truly indicate the cause of the pain.

Headaches behind the eyes may be caused by various health problems, such as eye strain, migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, or sinus issues. To find relief, it is important to investigate possible causes and then address the root issue. 

Talk with your doctor to identify the cause and determine the most effective treatments for your specific type of headache.

Causes of Headache Behind the Eyes

These are some of the most common causes of headache behind the eyes:

Eye Strain

Digital eye strain or computer eye strain can produce the feeling of a headache behind the eyes. The cause is staring for long periods at a computer screen or when doing fine work. Poor lighting and lack of movement may also contribute to this condition.

Along with headaches, there can be additional symptoms of this kind of eye strain, such as these:

  • Dry eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Tension in the shoulders and neck
  • Difficulty focusing

Migraine

Migraines can cause extreme pain, sometimes feeling as if the pain is behind one eye. In the United States, migraines affect about 16 percent of adults. 

The causes vary, but migraines are often linked with stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, and hormonal changes. Additional causes may be environmental, such as smoky air, weather changes, and fluctuations in barometric pressure. 

Some causes of migraines are triggers linked to diet and lifestyle, including smoking, and drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. Dietary triggers may include foods with preservatives, such as MSG and nitrates. Dehydration can also bring on migraines.

In addition to the pain of the headache, individuals may also experience symptoms, such as these:

  • Visual auras that appear as streaks, zig-zags, and kaleidoscope-like sparkles
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Weakness 

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are often caused by excessive stress, lack of sleep, driving long distances, poor posture, or staring too long at a computer screen. They may also be linked with skipping meals or not drinking enough water.

Tension headaches feel as if the pain is behind both eyes, and they may include a sensation of pressure on the forehead. They can happen at any time of the day or night, and they may last between 30 minutes and several hours.

Symptoms vary, but often include the following:

  • Pressure around the forehead
  • Tenderness on the scalp
  • Dull pressure
  • Neck tension and tightness

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are rare. They have the name cluster because they tend to occur in a group, such as one to eight short painful episodes in a day. The clusters may also occur at the same time of year for a month or two. 

The exact cause of cluster headaches is still undetermined, but they seem to occur more commonly in men.

Symptoms include the following:

  • Dull throbbing pain or sharp pain
  • Pain behind only one eye
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Nighttime episodes
  • Watery or red eye

Sinus Conditions

Headache pain behind the eyes may arise when the sinuses are inflamed or congested. Sinusitis creates pressure that may be experienced behind one or both eyes. 

Sinusitis can be caused by allergies or viruses in the sinuses. Additionally, dental surgery or nasal polyps may cause sinus pain.

Common symptoms in addition to a headache include the following:

  • Pain increasing when lying down
  • Pain and pressure behind the forehead and cheeks
  • Congestion
  • Upper teeth aching

Eye Conditions Associated With Headaches Behind the Eyes

Headaches behind the eye may be associated with more serious causes, such as optic neuritis and angle-closure glaucoma. 

Optic neuritis is a condition where the optic nerve is inflamed. This condition is linked with autoimmune disorders and often has symptoms that cause headache pain behind or in the area of the eyes. Symptoms may also include dim vision, blurry vision, and pain in moving the eyes. 

Glaucoma is a condition where fluid builds up in your eye and can damage the optic nerve. Headaches with severe throbbing eye pain can be symptoms of a form of glaucoma called angle-closure glaucoma. The symptoms may also include blurry vision, seeing halos, red eyes, nausea, and vomiting. 

Both optic neuritis and angle-closure glaucoma are severe conditions. If either is suspected, you should contact your eye doctor or go to an emergency room. 

Diagnosis: How Do You Determine the Cause?

Your doctor will investigate the nature, frequency, intensity, and patterns of your headaches. They may recommend an eye examination to rule out potential underlying medical conditions. 

If you have unusual headaches, your doctor may conduct imaging tests. These are the two most common imaging tests for the brain:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): This produces clear images by combining radio waves, a magnetic field, and computer data to show an image of your brain.
  • CT (computerized tomography): This uses a series of x-rays directed by computer data to create an in-depth view of your brain.

With these diagnostic tests, your doctor may be able to rule out serious conditions that could be causing headaches behind the eyes.

Triggers for Headaches

Triggers for headaches largely depend on the type of headache you’re experiencing. There is a lot of overlap in triggers as well. 

Eye strain is often triggered by staring at a computer for hours, without moving position. Lack of water or food, as well as poor posture, can contribute to activating this kind of headache.

Tension headaches are one of the most common forms of headaches that cause pain behind the eyes. Triggers can be hunger and poor hydration. Tension headaches can be caused by staring at a screen or detailed work for too long. They can also be due to poor posture.

Migraines may be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, bright lights, or smoky environments. Certain foods, such as red wine, cheese, and chocolate, can trigger migraines. Specific preservatives like MSG or nitrates can also be triggers for migraines. 

Cluster headaches may be brought on by alcohol, smoking, or certain medications. 

Sinus headaches can be triggered by allergies, colds, and sinus congestion.

Risk Factors for Headaches

Headaches are incredibly common. Up to 75 percent of adults worldwide have experienced a headache in the past year. And headaches can take a toll on overall quality of life, affecting attendance at work or school. 

There are over 150 types of headaches. The primary ones are not caused by a medical condition, and these include cluster headaches, migraines, and tension headaches. 

Some headaches are called secondary headaches, and they may be related to other medical conditions. These could be diseases of the blood vessels in the brain, high blood pressure, or head injury. 

Additionally head injury, infection, and overuse of medications may be contributing factors to some headaches.

Treatment for Headache Behind the Eyes

There are many different treatment approaches for headaches behind the eyes, ranging from home remedies and lifestyle adjustments to over-the-counter and prescription medications.

Medications

Medications are available both over the counter as well as by prescription.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Some headaches can be helped with over-the-counter painkillers. Pain relief drugs, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Motrin), are available for rapid pain relief.

Some drugs offer pain relief as well as an added ingredient like caffeine or a sedative. Many of these are available without a prescription. If you are unsure how these work, your local pharmacist can likely advise you.

Prescription Medications

If you have frequent or severe headaches, talk with your doctor about prescription options. Some medications are considered preventative that may take several weeks to build up in your body before they show an effect. It is helpful to have realistic expectations so that you can understand how long it may take to experience an improvement.

Cluster headaches are often treated with verapamil or prednisone. 

Sinus-related headaches may be treated with nasal sprays to open and reduce sinus pressure. Nose drops may also be beneficial.

Triptan medication may relieve the pain of migraines and tension-type headaches. If these work for you, they can have a dramatic impact on your pain, quality of life, and ability to do work. Talk with your doctor to see if this medication choice is appropriate for you.

Lasmiditan is a new oral medication that improves pain and offers relief from nausea as well as light and sound sensitivity. This medication may be considered safer for people with cardiovascular issues.

Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) antibodies are a new development in the treatment of migraines. This innovative treatment can be delivered with a shot once a month or an IV dose once every three months. Talk with your doctor to understand if this is a recommended option for your condition. 

Some tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline and protriptyline, may provide relief from headaches on an ongoing basis.

Home Remedies

Traditional home remedies for headaches have been around for decades, largely because they often work. Here are some of them:

  • Rest and sleep as much as possible.
  • Try relaxation practices to relieve stress, such as meditation.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Stretch and engage in gentle exercise.
  • Stay away from the computer or fine detail work until the headache passes.

While these may seem too small to have an impact, many people find that simple home remedies help to create a calm environment, and this can ease a headache behind the eyes. By experimenting, you can determine which home remedies are most effective for you. 


Caffeine

One home remedy for migraines is to suck on a coffee bean or sip a strong caffeinated drink. According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraine patients often report a strong cup of coffee can stop some migraine attacks. Research studies explore the variable role of caffeine, as it is sometimes a trigger and sometimes a treatment for migraines.

One study found that coffee intake may limit headaches, but too much coffee triggers migraines for some people. What is the expert recommendation? Track your intake and see what works or doesn’t work for you. 


Lifestyle Changes

For sinus-related headaches, regularly use a humidifier to boost moisture in a room. This can ease sinus pressure, preventing sinus headaches from occurring. 

Further lifestyle changes include modifying your diet to avoid certain headache triggers, limiting alcohol intake, upgrading your nutrition, and engaging in daily exercise. 

Making nutritional and lifestyle changes can help to improve quality of life, reduce headache symptoms, and reduce reliance on medications.

Keep a headache journal, where you document the changes you make and your headache severity and frequency. This can help you to measure what works for you. 

Headache Behind the Eyes FAQs

Is a headache behind the eyes serious?

Most often, a headache behind the eyes is not serious, but it can be due to a more serious condition, so it’s important to see a doctor if it doesn’t lessen in a few hours. Headaches are very common, and they are mostly benign.

What causes headaches behind the eyes?

Headaches behind the eyes may be caused by several different conditions, including migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, sinusitis, and eye strain. The underlying causes for these headaches may be linked to stress, lack of sleep, diet, nutrition, and hydration.

How do you get rid of headaches behind the eyes?

Many people get rid of headaches behind the eyes with home remedies, over-the-counter and prescription medications, and lifestyle modifications. If you have severe headaches, talk with your doctor to diagnose the root cause and find further treatments.

References

  1. Headache Behind Eye. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  2. Digital Eye Strain. Kellogg Eye Center, Michigan Medicine. 

  3. Migraine Headaches: Causes, Treatment & Symptoms. Cleveland Clinic.

  4. What Is Migraine? American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  5. Headaches: Illnesses and Conditions. National Health Service.

  6. Headaches. Cleveland Clinic.

  7. Cluster Headaches. John Hopkins Medicine.

  8. Cure Headache Pain & Suffering. The National Headache Foundation.

  9. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Optic Neuritis. (September 2015). Deutsches Ärzteblatt

  10. Glaucoma. Kellogg Eye Center, Michigan Medicine.

  11. Key Points about Caffeine and Migraines. American Migraine Foundation.

  12. The Ambiguous Role of Caffeine in Migraine Headache: From Trigger to Treatment. (August 2020). Nutrients.

  13. Does Monosodium Glutamate Really Cause Headache? A Systematic Review of Human Studies. (May 2016). The Journal of Headache and Pain.

  14. Etiology of ‘Sinus Headache’—Moving the Focus from Rhinology to Neurology. A Systematic Review. (January 2021). Brain Sciences.

  15. A Global Real-World Assessment of the Impact on Health-Related Quality of Life and Work Productivity of Migraine in Patients With Insufficient Versus Good Response to Triptan Medication. (May 2020). The Journal of Headache and Pain.

  16. Diet, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Interventions for Migraine Relief. (March 2021). Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, University of California Irvine.

  17. What a Pain in the Head: There Are More Than 150 Types of Headaches. Meridian Research.

  18. If You Have Migraines, Put Down Your Coffee and Read This. Harvard Health Publishing.

  19. Lasmiditan: New First-in-Class Drug Treatment Approved for Migraine. Harvard Health Publishing.

  20. CGRP Inhibitors for Migraine. (April 2020). Innovations In Clinical Neuroscience

Last Updated June 14, 2022

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