A TIA (transient ischemic attack) can cause a really bad—and very brief—headache. And this also describes the so-called ice pick headache.
But if you keep getting stabbing, sharp pains in your head (lasting up to 30 seconds), but no other symptoms (one-sided numbness, weakness or paralysis, confusion, visual disturbance, slurred speech), the odds of all of these events being a TIA are extremely tiny.
“TIA’s usually, but not always, present with a neurologic complaint such as weakness, facial droop or slurred speech,” explains Rob Lapporte, MD, board certified in emergency medicine and chief medical officer of Physician 360, a telemedicine service.
“Ice pick headaches occur commonly in people who also suffer from migraines and present with severe, sharp, stabbing pains in one specific portion of the head.”
However, you need not be a migraine sufferer to have an ice pick headache or sudden sharp pain in the head that lasts only seconds.
Dr. Lapporte points out that the ice pick headache lasts five to 30 seconds on average, “and are usually treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories like indomethacin.”
Some ice pick sufferers have these episodes several times a day. On the other hand, some people have one or two every few months. For some sufferers, the thought of a brain tumor immediately occurs.
There is no pattern for this type of pain, and usually no trigger.
A pinched nerve in the neck can cause sharp pain that radiates to the head, and so can muscles and nerves in the neck region that have been pummeled with a strenuous weightlifting workout.
But usually, pain from a pinched nerve or nerves that are buzzed from intense weightlifting isn’t as pronounced as that of a true ice pick headache.
The key feature of the ice pick episode is that it lasts only seconds. And as mentioned, there are no other symptoms with these episodes.
Dr. Lapporte has been practicing evidence-based clinical medicine in emergency rooms and urgent care centers for almost 20 years.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.