Welcome to #AskFlipScience, where we answer even the strangest, silliest questions with science!

This week’s question: What causes sudden headaches?

Have you ever been working–just minding your own business, basically–only to suddenly feel a sharp headache, seemingly out of nowhere?

The last time I experienced this, I pretty much freaked out. And while there is some merit to the oft-repeated advice to never Google [one’s] symptoms, I went ahead and looked for answers, anyway.

Making headway

There are a little over 300 types of headaches, and unless you have 300 heads, you’re obviously not experiencing all of them at once.

The good news is that most headaches — the sharp, stinging ones that last for a few seconds and go away — are rarely a reason to panic.

There are two kinds of headaches: primary (headaches that aren’t the result of a different illness) and secondary (which are caused by another medical condition). Let’s take a look at some examples of primary headaches.

Tension headaches

These headaches are the most common of all headaches; in fact, studies show that 75% of adults experience this. Typically mild to moderate in severity, you can usually tell that you’re having a tension headache if you feel a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of your head. You may also feel a bit of aching in your shoulders or neck. Tension headaches may last anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours, and may be the result of fatigue, muscular problems, or emotional stress. Thankfully, you can deal with these easily: over-the-counter headache meds, a heating pad, a warm shower, a nap, or even a snack can help.


We often hear this word thrown around whenever someone talks about headaches, but are we sure we know what it means?

Here’s a handy mnemonic for remembering the symptoms of an honest-to-God migraine, from Harvard Medical School:

P is for pulsating pain
O for one-day duration of severe untreated attacks
U for unilateral (one-sided) pain
N for nausea and vomiting
D for disabling intensity

Various factors can bring about a migraine, including humidity, oversleeping, fatigue, flickering lights, strong smells, or even missing a meal.

A migraine can last from 4 hours to a full day. And if you ask anyone who has ever experienced a migraine, they’d surely tell you that either option is way too long.

You can deal with migraines through non-prescription pain relievers, or doctor-prescribed medication (for the more intense ones).

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are, literally and figuratively, an absolute pain. Middle-aged male smokers tend to suffer these headaches the most.

You can probably guess by the name that these headaches come in clusters. Some patients even experience up to eight headaches a day for three months straight.

Immediately inhaling high-flow oxygen, as well as lidocaine nose drops, dihydroergotamine injections, and verapamil (a calcium-channel blocker), can help you overcome this particularly nasty headache variant.

Other causes of headaches

*Low energy levels.
*Lack of sleep.
*Intense and sudden physical activity.
*Extreme mental stress.
*Improper sitting posture.

A good rule of thumb to follow: if you’re experiencing a headache, it’s likely because of something that you have or haven’t done in the past hour or so.

Meanwhile, severe headaches (like ones that happen multiple times a day or are able to knock you out) should always be checked by a doctor. However, if your head just stings a bit sometimes, there’s a good chance that you’re fine.

Remember: Headaches are your brain’s way of telling you to pay attention to yourself! –MF

Cover photo: Bruce Mars/Pexels


  • https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/secondary-headaches/
  • https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324742.php
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/when-headaches-are-more-than-a-pain
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/headache-when-to-worry-what-to-do

Author: Kyle Edralin

A writer, creative, and craftsman – Kyle (or as his friends call him, Phenex) trawls the internet for interesting science stories to share to the aforementioned friends. He has since decided to bring this pursuit to a much wider audience, and is working delivering this kind of information in a way that makes much more sense than his usual ramblings. He is also very fond of penguins.