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What Types of Headaches Cause Pain on Top of the Head & How to Treat It?

Everyone is familiar with having headaches once in a while. Some people experience headaches more frequently than others, while some suffer from the debilitating migraine headache. There are many types of headaches, and each type comes with their own unique set of symptoms.

Headaches that occur on top of the head might lead to worries, but in most cases, they are nothing to be worried about. Read on to find out more about what does a headache on top of the head indicates and what you can do about it.

What Types of Headaches Cause Pain on Top of the Head?

What Types of Headaches Cause Pain on Top of the Head?

Different types of headaches have different causes, and each headache also has its own triggers in different people. It is necessary first to understand the underlying cause of a headache on top of the head so that you can take the appropriate steps to treat it.

Here are some of the main types of headaches that cause pain on top of the head:

Tension Headaches

The most common cause of headaches that are felt on top of the head is tension headaches. A majority of people tend to experience tension headaches quite often, primarily due to the rising levels of stress in our daily lives today.

The pain felt due to tension headaches is often described as a pain that feels like it is adding weight or squeezing to a particular area, especially the top of the head.(1)

Some people may also experience pain in the shoulders or the neck.

The pain that stems from tension headaches is usually described as dull, but not throbbing or pulsating kind of pain on top of the head. Tension headaches are generally not as severe as a migraine headache, and most people can continue on with their daily tasks even with this type of a headache.(2)

Sleep Deprivation Headaches

Headaches that are caused by a lack of sleep are known as sleep deprivation headaches, and they can also commonly cause pain on top of the head. Such type of headache can affect anyone, even those who do not get headaches frequently.

Sleep deprivation headaches are typically caused by interrupted or inadequate sleep. They can be identified by a dull ache combined with pressure or feeling of heaviness on top of the head.

A research study carried out in 2011 by researchers at the Missouri State University found that a lack of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with more painful headaches. Rapid eye movement sleep takes place in intervals of 90 to 120 minutes throughout the night. This phase of sleep derives its name from the rapid eye movements that commonly occur during this phase of sleep.(3)

Rapid eye movement sleep phase is also characterized by:

  • Faster breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Body movements
  • Increased dreaming

Experts believe that this phase of sleep is required by the body to store memories, regulate mood, and to learn. The 2011 study found that a chronic lack of sleep leads to an increase in the production of proteins that cause chronic pain in the body. These particular proteins are known to decrease the body’s threshold for experiencing pain. This can lead to intense migraine headaches.

Another review in 2018 found a close link between lack of sleep and tension headaches that affect the top of the head.(4)


Migraine headaches can be debilitating, and the pain can also occur on top of the head, though it more commonly affects one side of the head or the back of the neck. Migraines are also known to cause severe throbbing kind of pain and are also usually accompanied by other symptoms such as(5)

Migraines are commonly left on the left side of the head, but they can also be felt on both sides.

Which Muscles are Responsible For A Headache On Top Of The Head?

Headaches that occur on top of the head are usually caused only by a couple of muscles.

The first group of muscles is known as the suboccipital muscles, which cause the movement between the first and second vertebrae in the skull and the neck. This group of muscles can contract or become tense because of factors like an excessive strain on your eyes, poor posture, or even grinding your teeth. When these muscles become too stiff, they can start to compress the occipital nerve, which leads to occipital neuralgia.(6)

Other muscle groups that may also cause a headache on top of the head are the splenius capitus and splenius cervicis muscles. These muscles run up the neck, and tension in these muscle groups can cause a headache on top of the head, a stiff neck, and neck pain as well.(7)

How to Treat Headaches On Top Of The Head?

The easiest way to treat these headaches is to, of course, take some over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen). These pain relievers can help alleviate your headache symptoms. If you have a severe headache or migraine headaches, then you can also try using Excedrin Migraine or extra-strength Tylenol. However, do not take both these medications at the same time since they both contain acetaminophen. Taking too much acetaminophen can lead to an overdose.(8)

Reducing stress levels, catching up on your sleep, and maintaining good posture even while you are sitting down to work can make a difference and prevent many of the common types of headaches. If you have to sit for prolonged hours at a desk for work, then it might be a good idea to buy an ergonomic chair to ensure proper posture and prevent stress headaches.

If you feel that overly tense muscles are the cause of your headaches, then you should consult a massage therapist or a chiropractor. They will help relax the tense muscles, especially in your neck.

If you find that the frequency of your headaches is increasing or becoming more severe, then see your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe certain pain medications or come up with a customized treatment plan to prevent your headaches.

Remember that the treatment for headaches varies depending on the underlying cause and type of headache. Some of the common treatments include:

  1. Treatment for migraine headaches usually involves using both preventative and immediate relief medications. Beta-blockers, anti-seizure drugs, and antidepressants are sometimes used as preventive medications to prevent migraines from occurring. Triptans are also prescribed to constrict the blood vessels, thus reducing pain.(9)
  2. If you are having severe tension headaches, then your doctor may recommend prescription pain relievers.
  3. Headaches due to occipital neuralgia are usually treated with physical therapy, warm compresses, massage, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Sometimes anti-seizure drugs are also used to prevent these headaches.

If you find that the prescribed treatment plan is not helping you or you are unable to cope with the side effects of these medications, then you should let your doctor know at the earliest. There are many types of treatment plans and medications available that can help you get relief from headaches on top of the head.


Moderate headaches on top of the head can be managed with home remedies or over-the-counter pain relievers and are not a cause of concern. If you find the frequency or severity of your headaches increasing, then you should consider making an appointment with your doctor to understand the underlying cause of your headaches. If the headaches do not resolve with the prescribed treatment, then you should let your doctor know that you need a change in the treatment plan. Remember that following a healthy lifestyle and diet, and reducing stress can also help reduce the frequency of headaches.


  1. Hutchings, D.F. and Reinking, R.H., 1976. Tension headaches. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 1(2), pp.183-190.
  2. Martin, P.R. and Mathews, A.M., 1978. Tension headaches: Psychophysiological investigation and treatment. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 22(5), pp.389-399.
  3. Durham, P., Garrrett, F., Hawkins, J., Hayden, J. and Campos, J., 2011. REM sleep deprivation promotes sustained levels of proteins implicated in peripheral and central sensitization of trigeminal nerves: role in pain chronification. The Journal of Pain, 12(4), p.P31.
  4. Fernández-de-las-Peñas, C., Fernández-Muñoz, J.J., Palacios-Ceña, M., Parás-Bravo, P., Cigarán-Méndez, M. and Navarro-Pardo, E., 2018. Sleep disturbances in tension-type headache and migraine. Therapeutic advances in neurological disorders, 11, p.1756285617745444.
  5. Lipton, R.B. and Stewart, W.F., 1998. Migraine headaches: epidemiology and comorbidity. Clinical neuroscience (New York, NY), 5(1), pp.2-9.
    Hammond, S.R. and Danta, G., 1978. Occipital neuralgia. Clinical and experimental neurology, 15, pp.258-270.
  6. Marcus, D.A., Scharff, L., Mercer, S. and Turk, D.C., 1999. Musculoskeletal abnormalities in chronic headache: a controlled comparison of headache diagnostic groups. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 39(1), pp.21-27.
  7. Smilkstein, M.J., Knapp, G.L., Kulig, K.W. and Rumack, B.H., 1988. Efficacy of oral N-acetylcysteine in the treatment of acetaminophen overdose. New England Journal of Medicine, 319(24), pp.1557-1562.
  8. Silberstein, S.D. and Goadsby, P.J., 2002. Migraine: preventive treatment. Cephalalgia, 22(7), pp.491-512.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 29, 2020

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