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Throbbing Pain

Throbbing pain in the head is one of the most common symptoms of migraine. In fact, almost everyone with migraine reports this symptom.1

Throbbing pain is so common that it is one of the ways doctors diagnose migraine from other types of headache. Studies have found that people with throbbing pain share certain characteristics:

  • They have more severe attacks, more often.
  • They are more disabled by their migraine attacks.
  • Current treatments are less likely to work for them.
  • They are more likely to become depressed.1

What causes the throbbing pain of migraine?

Doctors do not know what causes throbbing pain in migraine. Because this type of migraine pain can be so steady, people once believed that it was somehow related to the heartbeat. However, several studies have found no connection between migraine throbbing and a person’s heartbeat.2

Some people report that the throbbing continues long after the pain goes away, which supports the idea that the heartbeat and throbbing pain are unrelated. Others report the throbbing gets worse when they feel strong emotions or get upset.2

How is a migraine different from a regular headache?

Pulsing, throbbing pain is one of the main symptoms that makes a migraine different from regular headaches or tension headaches.

The type of head pain experienced with migraine is often described as:

  • Throbbing
  • Dull aching
  • Rhythmic or pulsing (also called pulsatile pain)
  • Pounding
  • Beating
  • Stabbing

It often occurs at the temples, but may also be felt at the front or back of the head. Some people feel the pain on one side and others on both sides of the head. Pain that occurs on one side of the head is called unilateral. Pain felt on both sides of the head is called bilateral.

The pounding may get worse with certain movements such as:

  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Bending over
  • Straining
  • Moving the head quickly
  • Physical activity2-4

Poll

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 pain

Migraine.com advocates often write about their experiences coping with migraine 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.

Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: December 2019
  1. Ahn AH. Southern Headache Society supplement: the neurobiology of throbbing pain in migraine. Headache. 2012;52 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):12–14. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02136.x
  2. Mirza AF, et al. Is there a relationship between throbbing pain and arterial pulsations? J Neurosci. 2012 May 30;32(22):7572-6. doi: 10.1523.
  3. Wootton RJ. Patient education: Migraines in adults (Beyond the Basics) UpToDate.com. Available at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/migraines-in-adults-beyond-the-basics. Accessed 12/2/19.
  4. Mo J, Maizels M, Ding M, Ahn AH. Does throbbing pain have a brain signature? Pain. 2013;154(7):1150–1155. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2013.02.013.