What is a thunderclap headache?

A thunderclap headache is a severe headache that starts suddenly. This type of headache pain doesn’t gradually build in intensity. Instead, it’s an intense and very painful headache as soon as it starts. In fact, it’s frequently described as the worse headache of one’s life.

A thunderclap headache may be a sign of a condition that can be life-threatening. It may be connected to some sort of bleeding in your brain. It’s important that you seek medical attention if you think you may be experiencing one. It may also have a benign cause that’s not life-threatening but should still be checked immediately to find out what’s causing it.

How common is a thunderclap headache?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of a thunderclap headache?

The common symptoms of a thunderclap headache are:

  • Strikes suddenly and severely — sometimes described as the worst headache ever experienced
  • Peaks within 60 seconds
  • Lasts anywhere between an hour and 10 days
  • Can occur anywhere in the head, and may involve the neck or lower back
  • Can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or loss of consciousness

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

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


What causes a thunderclap headache?

Thunderclap headaches could be caused by bleeding from an artery into the space surrounding your brain. This is known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Arteries are vessels that supply blood to your brain.

A thunderclap headache could also be caused by any of the following:

  • Small tears in the arteries of your head or neck
  • A burst artery or aneurysm, which is a swollen, weak area in the artery
  • Blocked veins in your head
  • Leaking spinal fluid
  • Rapid changes in blood pressure
  • An infection in your brain

Some activities such as the following could trigger a thunderclap headache:

  • Hard, physical labor
  • Taking certain drugs, including illegal ones
  • Hitting warm or hot water too fast, such as when you first enter a shower or bath

Risk factors

What increases my risk for a thunderclap headache?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is a thunderclap headache diagnosed?

The following tests are commonly used to determine if any underlying condition is causing thunderclap headaches.

CT scan

Testing for thunderclap headaches often starts with a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the head to search for an underlying cause of the headache. CT scans take X-rays that create slice-like, cross-sectional images of your brain and head.

A computer combines these images to create a full picture of your brain. Sometimes an iodine-based dye is used to augment the picture.

Spinal tap

Sometimes a spinal tap (lumbar puncture) may be needed as well. With this procedure, the doctor removes a small amount of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. The cerebrospinal fluid sample can be tested for signs of bleeding or infection.


In some cases, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done for further assessment. With this imaging study, a magnetic field and radio waves are used to create cross-sectional images of the structures within your brain.

Magnetic resonance angiography

MRI machines can also be used to map the blood flow inside your brain in a test called a magnetic resonance angiography.

How is a thunderclap headache treated?

There’s no single treatment for thunderclap headaches because so many potential causes exist. Treatment is aimed at the underlying cause of the headaches — if one is found.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage a thunderclap headache?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with a thunderclap headache:

You may find it useful to talk to other people who experience painful headaches. Try finding a support group in your area to learn how other people cope with their headache pain and discomfort.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Review Date: November 14, 2017 | Last Modified: November 14, 2017

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