Pressure in the head: Causes, treatments, and when to see a doctor (2022)

Various health conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head. Some of these issues, such as a sinus infection or a problem with the ear, can be easy to treat.

However, intense pressure or pain in the head can indicate a severe underlying medical condition.

This article describes different causes of pressure in the head. We look into accompanying symptoms and various treatments and give advice about when to see a doctor.

The following conditions can cause a feeling of pressure in the head:

Tension-type headache

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According to the American Migraine Foundation, about 75% of the general population experiences tension-type headaches (TTHs).

A TTH can cause a sensation of a tight band or vice squeezing the head. Pain of a TTH ranges from mild to moderate.

According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, TTHs fall into three categories:

  • Infrequent episodic TTH: occurs once or less often per month, on average.
  • Frequent episodic TTH: occurs 2–14 times per month, on average.
  • Chronic TTH: occurs 15 or more times per month, for at least 3 months.

Experts do not know exactly what causes TTHs. However, these headaches may develop as a result of:

  • muscle tension
  • stress
  • anxiety or depression
  • poor posture

Sinus infection and sinus headache

Health issues such as seasonal allergies and upper respiratory infections can cause inflammation in the nasal passages and sinuses. This can result in a sinus headache.

A sinus headache causes a feeling of constant pressure in the front of the head. A person may also experience the sensation in the:

  • nose
  • ears
  • cheekbones

Migraine

Migraine is a neurological health issue. It can cause headaches, and these may involve intense, throbbing pain on the sides of the head.

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A migraine headache usually affects one side of the head at a time, but it can affect both.

Migraine is more common in females than in males. According to the Office on Women’s Health, nearly 29.5 million people in the United States experience pain and other symptoms of the condition.

In addition to pain, migraine can cause:

  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • vision problems, such as blurred vision, partial vision loss, or the appearance of flashing lights
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • fatigue

The exact cause of migraine remains unknown. However, genetic and environmental factors may influence a person’s risk.

Ear problems

A dull, aching pressure on the side of the head, face, or jaw may indicate an ear infection or a vestibular migraine.

Symptoms that usually accompany ear-related problems include:

  • pain in the ear, jaw, or temple
  • dizziness or vertigo
  • trouble hearing
  • tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears
  • vision problems
  • fluid discharge from the ear

Meningitis

Meningitis is a rare medical condition that causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called the meninges.

Meningitis typically develops after a viral or bacterial infection enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. The infection then invades the tissues and fluids in the brain or spinal cord.

Other causes of meningitis include:

  • infection with fungi
  • infection with parasites
  • infection with Naegleria fowleri amoeba
  • certain medications
  • lupus
  • some head injuries
  • some cancers

Inflammation in the brain and spinal cord can cause severe head pain, as well as:

  • a stiff neck
  • a fever
  • fatigue
  • sensitivity to light
  • mood changes
  • a loss of appetite
  • confusion
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • seizures

Brain tumor

A tumor in or near the brain can increase pressure inside the skull.

The American Cancer Society provide the following general list of brain tumor symptoms:

  • headache
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • fatigue
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness or a loss of balance
  • personality or behavior changes
  • seizures
  • coma

Brain aneurysm

An aneurysm is a bulge, or protrusion, that forms in a blood vessel.

Aneurysms develop due to a weakness in the blood vessel wall, and the protruding region can fill with blood.

A brain aneurysm can press against nerves and brain tissue, causing the following symptoms:

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  • numbness
  • weakness
  • pain above and behind the eye
  • pupil dilation
  • vision changes
  • paralysis on one side of the face

If a person does not receive treatment, a brain aneurysm can burst, or rupture, filling the surrounding tissue with blood. If this happens, a person develops a sudden, severe headache.

Other symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm include:

  • double vision
  • a stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • seizures
  • a loss of consciousness
  • stroke

A ruptured brain aneurysm is an emergency. Anyone with an aneurysm that they believe has ruptured should contact emergency services immediately if they have any of the above symptoms.

The treatment for pressure in the head varies, depending on the cause. Treatment may involve:

Medication

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Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These drugs can help reduce pressure from TTHs, migraines, and sinus headaches. NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are available over the counter.

Triptans: This group of medications is highly effective at treating moderate to severe migraine headaches.

Antibiotics: These can eradicate bacteria that cause sinus infections or bacterial meningitis. People with bacterial meningitis usually receive intravenous antibiotics.

Corticosteroids: These drugs help reduce inflammation and pressure caused by infection or inflammatory conditions, such as lupus. In combination with antibiotics, they can help treat bacterial meningitis.

Antiviral medications: These drugs may help eradicate viruses responsible for conditions such as viral meningitis and other infections, but they are not always effective.

Chemotherapy: These powerful anticancer drugs may help slow the growth of certain types of brain tumor.

Surgery

Some brain tumors or aneurysms require surgery. The procedures differ, depending on the condition.

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Surgery for brain tumors

A person may undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to remove the entire tumor, due to its location.

In this case, the medical team may recommend debulking surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Doing so can make subsequent radiation therapy or chemotherapy more effective.

Surgery for brain aneurysms

Large brain aneurysms may require surgery, especially if there is an increased risk of rupturing. Treatments for brain aneurysms focus on stopping the flow of blood to the weakened vessel.

Doctors can do this with various surgical or minimally invasive procedures, such as:

  • Microvascular surgical clipping: This form of open brain surgery involves the surgeon applying a metal clip to the affected blood vessel, cutting off the supply of blood to the aneurysm.
  • Embolization: This involves using tiny metal coils to block blood flow to the aneurysm.
  • Blood flow diversion devices: These are small, flexible mesh tubes that help reduce blood flow to the aneurysm.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Persistent headaches and migraines can trigger stress, anxiety, depression, or a combination. This, in turn, can lead to further headaches.

People who experience this pain-stress cycle may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying unhelpful thoughts that a person may have in response to stressful events.

CBT can teach people strategies for interrupting the pain-stress cycle, reducing headache-related psychological distress.

According to a 2017 article in The Journal of Headache and Pain, stress is the most common trigger for migraine headaches.

A 2016 multinational survey showed an association between migraine headaches and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

The following relaxation techniques may help reduce stress and anxiety, alleviating associated head pressure and pain:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: This deep breathing technique may help lower levels of stress hormones in the body.
  • Guided imagery: This type of meditation involves bringing peaceful scenes to mind.
  • Mindfulness meditation: This involves directing attention toward feelings and sensations that are happening in the present moment.

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People should see a doctor if they experience 14 or more headaches per month.

The following types of headache also require medical attention:

  • sudden, severe headaches
  • headaches that last longer than a few hours
  • constant headaches that are always in the same location
  • headaches that become more severe when changing body positions

Sometimes, other symptoms accompany head pressure and pain. People should seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:

  • stiffness in the neck
  • weakness on one side of the body
  • slurred speech
  • difficulty walking
  • fever, night sweats, or both
  • eye or ear pain
  • nausea, vomiting, or both
  • vision changes
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness
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Several conditions can cause a feeling of tightness or pressure in the head. The most common causes are headache, migraine, or infection.

Most conditions that cause pressure in the head go away on their own or respond to over-the-counter pain medication.

However, intense or persistent pressure in the head may indicate a severe underlying medical condition.

People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience a sudden, severe headache that is accompanied by neck stiffness, slurred speech, or other symptoms that could be serious.

Read this article in Spanish.

FAQs

When should I see a doctor about pressure in my head? ›

However, intense or persistent pressure in the head may indicate a severe underlying medical condition. People should seek immediate medical attention if they experience a sudden, severe headache that is accompanied by neck stiffness, slurred speech, or other symptoms that could be serious.

How do doctors relieve head pressure? ›

These include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants, and other pain relievers. If your headaches are disrupting your daily life, your doctor will likely be able to help. Lifestyle changes and alternative therapies are also effective in treating tension headaches.

What causes a build up of pressure in the head? ›

Causes of chronic intracranial hypertension

a blood clot on the surface of your brain, known as a chronic subdural haematoma. a brain tumour. an infection in your brain, such as meningitis or encephalitis. hydrocephalus, where fluid builds up around and inside your brain.

Why does my head feel full of pressure? ›

A rush of pressure or lasting tightness in your head can be uncomfortable, but it isn't always a cause for alarm. Pressure in your head can be caused by a cold, allergies, migraines, and more. This article will explore what types of problems can cause pressure in your head and what you can do to find relief.

What are the four stages of increased intracranial pressure? ›

Intracranial hypertension is classified in four forms based on the etiopathogenesis: parenchymatous intracranial hypertension with an intrinsic cerebral cause, vascular intracranial hypertension, which has its etiology in disorders of the cerebral blood circulation, meningeal intracranial hypertension and idiopathic ...

What does anxiety head pressure feel like? ›

Anxiety causes a heavy head feeling because of tension headaches common in people living with the disorder. Most people describe these headaches as feeling like a tight band wrapped around their heads. A tightening of the scalp and neck muscles also causes an anxiety headache.

Does stress cause pressure in your head? ›

It's not a coincidence — headaches are more likely to occur when you're stressed. Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine. It can also trigger other types of headaches or make them worse. Stress is a particularly common headache trigger in children and young adults.

What is the head pressure? ›

Head pressure is a specific type of pressure used in pump systems. It is a measurement of the height difference between the fluid being moved and the discharge point.

How can I reduce the pressure in my brain? ›

This can be done in a number of ways, including: placing a shunt through a small hole in the skull or in the spinal cord to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid. using medications like mannitol and hypertonic saline to lower pressure. sedation to reduce anxiety and neurological responses.

How do you test for intracranial pressure? ›

Intracranial pressure is measured in two ways. One way is to place a small, hollow tube (catheter) into the fluid-filled space in the brain (ventricle). Other times, a small, hollow device (bolt) is placed through the skull into the space just between the skull and the brain.

How do you know if you have intracranial pressure? ›

Intracranial hypertension can put pressure on your optic nerve. Symptoms often include severe headaches, blurred vision, blind spots or vision loss. If you have IIH, treatment might include weight loss, medications or surgery.

What were your first signs of a brain tumor? ›

Symptoms
  • New onset or change in pattern of headaches.
  • Headaches that gradually become more frequent and more severe.
  • Unexplained nausea or vomiting.
  • Vision problems, such as blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision.
  • Gradual loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg.
  • Difficulty with balance.
6 Aug 2021

What does fluid in the brain feel like? ›

Irritability or drowsiness. Nausea, vomiting, headache or double vision. Fever.

How do you get rid of head pressure from anxiety? ›

How to Relieve Anxiety Headaches
  1. Close your eyes and rub the temples of your head for a few minutes. This may relieve some of the pressure.
  2. Take a warm shower. It's possible for warm showers to relax the muscles, which could reduce some of the pressure in your head.
  3. See if someone else can give you a massage.

Does an MRI show intracranial pressure? ›

CAMBRIDGE, England, Sept. 11 -- An MRI scan of the optic nerve sheath may provide an accurate, noninvasive way to screen for raised intracranial pressure, researchers found.

What drugs reduce intracranial pressure? ›

Medication Summary

Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors (eg, acetazolamide) and loop diuretics (eg, furosemide) are thought to exert their effect on ICP by reducing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) production at the choroid plexus.

Does intracranial pressure go away? ›

With treatment, in most cases, this condition goes away. However, increased pressure can return months or even years later. You can reduce this risk by helping your child maintain a healthy weight. It is important to have regular eye exams to check for vision loss even after the intracranial hypertension gets better.

Can anxiety cause constant head pressure? ›

Common physical symptoms of anxiety can include rapid heartbeat, insomnia, increased or heavy sweating, muscle twitching, and lethargy. Another common symptom for people who struggle with anxiety is pressure in your head, or headaches, or what some describe as their head feeling heavy.

How do I know if my headache is an aneurysm? ›

Symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm usually begin with a sudden agonising headache. It's been likened to being hit on the head, resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before. Other symptoms of a ruptured brain aneurysm also tend to come on suddenly and may include: feeling or being sick.

Can anxiety and depression cause head pressure? ›

Sometimes, depression can cause headaches, along with other pains in the body. Research has also shown there are strong links between tension headaches and mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.

Can anxiety cause pressure in your head and ears? ›

Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN. Anxiety disorder can produce a wide range of symptoms, including ear popping and ear pressure symptoms.

Can stress and anxiety make your head feel weird? ›

Certain physical symptoms associated with anxiety can cause weird feelings in the head as well. Symptoms that affect the body's circulatory system, like heart palpitations and temporary spikes in blood pressure, can cause feelings in the head like: dizziness.

What does a high blood pressure headache feel like? ›

What can a hypertension headache feel like? Headaches triggered by high blood pressure typically cause a pulsing sensation that's felt all over the head rather than on just one side. If your headache is severe, happens suddenly, or is accompanied by chest pain or shortness of breath, get immediate medical attention.

What is another term for head pressure? ›

What is another term for head pressure? Elevation pressure.

Which of the following represents pressure head? ›

Pressure head is also called static head or static pressure head which is represented by 'Z'.

What does a brain tumor headache feel like? ›

They are often described as dull, "pressure-type" headaches, though some patients also experience sharp or "stabbing" pain. They can be localized to a specific area or generalized. They can be made worse with coughing, sneezing or straining.

What does a brain tumor headache feel like? ›

They are often described as dull, "pressure-type" headaches, though some patients also experience sharp or "stabbing" pain. They can be localized to a specific area or generalized. They can be made worse with coughing, sneezing or straining.

What does anxiety head pressure feel like? ›

Anxiety causes a heavy head feeling because of tension headaches common in people living with the disorder. Most people describe these headaches as feeling like a tight band wrapped around their heads. A tightening of the scalp and neck muscles also causes an anxiety headache.

What are signs of increased intracranial pressure? ›

What are the symptoms of ICP?
  • Headache.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Feeling less alert than usual.
  • Vomiting.
  • Changes in your behavior.
  • Weakness or problems with moving or talking.
  • Lack of energy or sleepiness.

What does a blood pressure headache feel like? ›

What can a hypertension headache feel like? Headaches triggered by high blood pressure typically cause a pulsing sensation that's felt all over the head rather than on just one side. If your headache is severe, happens suddenly, or is accompanied by chest pain or shortness of breath, get immediate medical attention.

What is usually the first symptom of a brain tumor? ›

Usually, the first sign of a brain tumor is a headache, generally in conjunction with other symptoms.

What were your first signs of a brain tumor? ›

Some of the more common signs and symptoms caused by brain tumors include the following:
  • Headaches.
  • Seizures.
  • Difficulty thinking, speaking, or finding words.
  • Changes in personality or behavior.
  • Weakness, numbness, or loss of movement in one part or one side of the body.
  • Difficulty with balance or dizziness.

What are my chances of having a brain tumor? ›

Overall, the chance that a person will develop a malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord in their lifetime is less than 1%.

Can anxiety cause constant head pressure? ›

Common physical symptoms of anxiety can include rapid heartbeat, insomnia, increased or heavy sweating, muscle twitching, and lethargy. Another common symptom for people who struggle with anxiety is pressure in your head, or headaches, or what some describe as their head feeling heavy.

Can chronic stress cause head pressure? ›

Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine. It can also trigger other types of headaches or make them worse.

Does an MRI show intracranial pressure? ›

CAMBRIDGE, England, Sept. 11 -- An MRI scan of the optic nerve sheath may provide an accurate, noninvasive way to screen for raised intracranial pressure, researchers found.

Can intracranial pressure go away on its own? ›

How is IIH treated? IIH may go away on its own. You may need any of the following if your symptoms continue or get worse: Medicines may be given to control migraines or decrease the amount of CSF you produce.

What drugs reduce intracranial pressure? ›

Medication Summary

Carbonic anhydrase inhibitors (eg, acetazolamide) and loop diuretics (eg, furosemide) are thought to exert their effect on ICP by reducing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) production at the choroid plexus.

Can you feel high blood pressure in your head? ›

In some cases, people with high blood pressure may have a pounding feeling in their head or chest, a feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness, or other signs.

Where is hypertension headache located? ›

A hypertension headache will usually occur on both sides of your head and is typically worse with any activity. It often has a pulsating quality. If you think you're experiencing a hypertension headache, seek immediate medical attention.

What are the 5 symptoms of high blood pressure? ›

Symptoms of High Blood Pressure
  • Blurry or double vision.
  • Lightheadedness/Fainting.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.

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