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Primary stabbing headache

F Michael Cutrer, MD
Section Editor
Jerry W Swanson, MD
Deputy Editor
John F Dashe, MD, PhD


Stabbing headache is one of several relatively uncommon headache syndromes that may occur either as a primary headache or as a headache secondary to potentially malignant processes. Careful evaluation for underlying causes is important for these uncommon types of headache.

This topic will review primary stabbing headache. Other types of uncommon primary headache disorders are discussed separately. (See "Primary cough headache" and "Exertional headache" and "Primary headache associated with sexual activity" and "Hypnic headache" and "Thunderclap headache" and "Nummular headache".)


In the past, primary (or idiopathic) stabbing headache has been known by several terms, including ice-pick headache, ophthalmodynia periodica, and jabs and jolts syndrome.


Primary stabbing headache is characterized by transient, sharp jabbing pains that occur within a small, localized area of the scalp. The pains tend to occur exclusively or predominantly at variable locations within the first division of the trigeminal nerve and frequently cause the patient to wince. They appear suddenly either as single stabs or in volleys of intense stabbing pain.

The stabs last from 1 to 10 seconds and occur at irregular intervals from rarely to many times each day [1]. There is a single report of a prolonged paroxysm lasting one week [2]. Primary stabbing headache has been described in both children and adults [3].


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Literature review current through: Apr 2015. | This topic last updated: Dec 10, 2014.
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