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Ice Pick Headaches - The Basics

the "official" name is primary stabbing headache

by Teri Robert, Lead Expert

These startling, sometimes frightening head pains have been described in various ways:

  • In the beginning, when I began having migraines, I suffered a sudden slash of pain, very intense and quick on the right side of my head. It started at one point and webbed out to what it felt like a inch in length. I had never felt this type of pain and it scared me.
  • They are intense, sharp, stabbing pain about your skull, as if you were being stabbed with an ice pick.
  • I was just wondering if anyone gets sudden pains in their heads. It can be in the front sometimes, or sometimes it's in my temple. It really varies.
  • I was awakened at 3 a.m. by excruciating, stabbing pains on the top right front of my head, kind of behind the eye. lasted about 30 seconds.
  • I get those types of stabbing pains too, I have no clue as to what is causing it. I get them all over my head. They can last for a few seconds to a few minutes. I started noticing them after my migraines started to get to where they were coming about 3-4 days a week
  • In addition, I have these very sudden sharp pains in my head on a daily basis. It feels as if I'm being stabbed in the head.

What are they? They're "ice pick headaches." They are short, stabbing, extremely intense headaches that can be absolutely terrifying. They generally only last between five and 30 seconds. However, they come out of nowhere, can strike anywhere on the head, literally feel as if an ice pick is being stuck into your head, then disappear before you can even figure out what's happening. The pain can also seem to occur in or behind the ear.

Under the International Headache Society's (IHS) criteria, the official name for them is "primary stabbing headache. Other terms that have been used are idiopathic stabbing headache jabs and jolts, ophthalmodynia, and periodica. Ice pick headaches is probably the most commonly used term because it's the most descriptive. The IHS description reads:

"Transient and localised stabs of pain in the head that occur spontaneously in the absence of organic disease of underlying structures or of the cranial nerves."

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