Thunderclap headaches

Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, grabbing your attention like a clap of thunder. The pain of these sudden, severe headaches peaks within 60 seconds and can start fading after an hour. Some of these headaches, however, can last for more than a week.

Thunderclap headaches are uncommon, but they can be a warning sign of potentially life-threatening conditions — usually having to do with bleeding in and around the brain. That's why it's so important to seek emergency medical attention if you experience a thunderclap headache.

Symptoms Causes

Thunderclap headaches are dramatic. Symptoms include pain that:

  • Strikes suddenly and severely — sometimes described as the worst headache ever experienced
  • Peaks within 60 seconds
  • Lasts for anywhere between an hour to 10 days
  • Can occur anywhere in the head or neck
  • Can be accompanied by nausea or vomiting

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate medical attention for any headache that comes on suddenly and severely.

Some thunderclap headaches appear as a result of:

  • No obvious physical reason

In other cases, potentially life-threatening conditions may be responsible, including:

  • Bleeding between the brain and membranes covering the brain
  • A rupture of a blood vessel in the brain
  • A tear in the lining of an artery (for example, carotid or vertebral artery) that supplies blood to the brain
  • Leaking of cerebrospinal fluid which when present is usually due to a tear of the covering around a nerve root in the spine
  • A tumor in the third ventricle of the brain that blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid
  • Death of tissue or bleeding in the pituitary gland
  • A blood clot in the brain
  • Severe elevation in blood pressure
  • Infection such as meningitis or encephalitis
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