What Is a Throbbing Headache?

A throbbing headache is a head pain pulsating in a rhythm of the heart.

Causes of Throbbing Headache


  • Exertion
  • Flu or other infection
  • Hangover
  • Allergic reaction
  • Tooth abscess
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Medications
    • Avelox (antibiotic), bactrim, chlorpropamide, diltiazem (and other calcium-chanel blockers), disulfiram-alcohol reaction, epinefrine, glipizide, isosorbide, Mirena (intrauterine contraceptive device), moclobemide, nitrates (nitroglycerin and isosorbide mono- and di-nitrate), omeprazol, vasopressin, vitamin A overdose
    • Medication withdrawal: ergotamine (Cafergot), amphetamine, methysergide
  • Poisoning
    • Spoiled fish (scombroid poisoning) causing throbbing headache and flushing (3)
    • Carbon monoxide (CO) from faulty heaters, gas-powered cleaning machines…: throbbing frontal headache, tiredness, confusion, irritability (4)
    • Toxic metals: arsenic, copper, lead
    • Benzene
    • Carbon tetrachloride
    • Cleaning products, solvents, pesticides
    • Dynamite (nitroglycerin)
  • Heat stroke: high body temperature, red, hot, dry skin, but no sweating, rapid pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, unconsciousness
  • Lumbar puncture, contrast imaging of vessels (angiography)
  • Hypnic headache wakening you up and lasting for up to 15 minutes
  • High altitude (mountain) sickness
  • Dissection or thrombosis of carotid, vertebral or basilar artery (1)
  • Arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in the brain
  • Preeclampsia and eclampsia: high blood pressure and seizures during pregnancy or delivery
  • High blood pressure can, rarely, when suddenly increased, cause throbbing pain in temples or in the back of the head

EPISODIC Throbbing Headache

  • Migraine, triggered by strong scents, monosodium glutamate – MSG (in soy sauce in Chinese restaurants), sodium nitrite (hot dog headache), red wine, noises, stress…Symptoms include throbbing one-sided headache, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light.
  • Sleep apnea – a sleep disorder with throbbing morning headache (2)
  • Throbbing headache after seizures
  • Decreased serotonin levels in the blood
  • Refractive errors
  • Basilar artery migraine, triggered by menstruation in young obese females.
  • Cluster headache. Attacks of intense, throbbing one-sided headache, lasting for several minutes and repeating once or more times in a day, several days or weeks in a row.
  • Short-lasting, Unilateral, Neuralgiform headache attacks with Conjunctival injection and Tearing (SUNCT) – brief recurrent bursts of throbbing head pain, usually one sided, around the eye or temple, watery, reddish eyes, and runny nose.

CONSTANT Throbbing Headache

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Temporal arteritis – an inflammation of the temporal artery usually causes severe, throbbing pain and tenderness on one side of the head, low grade fever
  • Shingles
  • Carotidynia – inflammation of the carotid artery. Throbbing pain and tenderness on one side of the neck and head
  • Structural abnormalities in the head or neck, like Chiari malformation or syringomyelia
  • New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH) without a known cause

Related Articles:


  1. Dissection of the carotid artery  (emedicine.medscape.com)
  2. Sleep apnea and throbbing headache  (drtmjsleepapnea.com)
  3. Scombroid fish poisoning, throbbing headache and flushing (picture)  (dermatology.cdlib.org)
  4. Substances related headache  (imigraine.net)

Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 9, 2010