Pain on One Side of the Head

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: December 2019

The word ‘migraine’ comes to us from the Latin word ‘hemicrania,’ which means pain on 1 side of the head, or cranium.1

Although migraine may cause pain all over the head, often the pain starts or is concentrated on 1 side. Pain on 1 side of the head is called unilateral pain. Pain on both sides is known as bilateral pain.

Between 60 to 70 percent of people with migraine feel throbbing pain on 1 side of the head. This pain may last from 4 to 72 hours.2 Some say their migraine attacks always happen on the same side, while others report that it changes from 1 attack to another. Still, others say their migraine pain covers their whole head.

People with migraine often feel the pain in the temple or behind 1 eye or 1 ear.3 This pain may also come with nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound.4

What causes migraine pain on 1 side of the head?

Doctors believe a migraine occurs when blood flow in the brain changes and causes certain nerves to send abnormal pain signals. During a migraine attack, brain chemicals called neurotransmitters get released which inflame brain tissue and blood vessels. This process is thought to cause many migraine symptoms, including pain on 1 side of the head.4

How is migraine pain treated?

Migraine pain can be treated with several different types of drugs. Acute treatments are drugs taken at the first signs of an attack to reduce the severity and length of the migraine.2

Mild pain may be controlled with over-the-counter pain relievers. This includes aspirin, acetaminophen, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen or ibuprofen.2

Prescription drugs called triptans may be needed to control pain that does not improve with over-the-counter pain relievers. Triptans can be delivered by capsule, tablet, nasal spray, skin patch, or injection. Some of the brand names of triptans include Alsuma, Frova, Maxalt, and Zomig.2

Your doctor may also prescribe drugs to help prevent migraine. Drugs used to prevent migraine include beta-blockers, antidepressants, anti-seizure medicines, and calcium channel blockers. Among natural remedies, the herb feverfew has been the most studied. Some studies found it helps prevent migraine but most experts feel it does not.2

Tracking your migraine symptoms

Keeping a record of your migraine symptoms may help you figure out patterns and triggers to your attacks. It may be helpful to record such things as:

  • When and where your pain or symptoms start
  • Whether the pain spreads to your entire head or neck
  • How well and how quickly acute treatment helps reduce the pain or other symptoms
  • How long your pain or symptoms last
  • Whether you experience other symptoms such as vision changes, nausea, or light sensitivity

Community experiences of migraine and head pain

While head pain on one side of the head is common, advocates write about their experiences on coping with all kinds of pain from various migraine symptoms. There is also an emphasis on explaining to others that migraine is way more than head pain. Since migraine is often considered an invisible disease, pain awareness and the invisibility of pain is a popular topic for people to commiserate over. Our advocates' articles on managing chronic pain can be found here.

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