Taking sides: Why migraines hit the left or right side of the head

Post In: 2x Gel Pack Soothing Eye Mask
Taking sides: Why migraines hit the left or right side of the head

Does your migraine feel like it’s taking sides? Perhaps the pain is concentrated only on the left or right side? 

Let’s figure out why.

First of all, it’s important to know that it’s not just migraines that cause one-sided pain in your head. There are many types of headaches that can cause this, too, but let’s focus on migraines.

What’s the story behind pain on one side of the head with migraines?

It is believed that migraines occur when the blood flow to the brain changes and makes certain nerves send abnormal pain signals. When a migraine attack happens, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are released, which then inflames brain tissue and blood cells. This is the reason behind migraine symptoms, one of which is having pain on one side of the head.

The word migraine itself comes from the Latin word hermicrania, which means pain on one side of the cranium, or head.  Migraine pain often starts as a concentration of pain on one side of the head. This is called unilateral pain. When there’s pain on both sides of the head, it is known as bilateral pain.

Amongst migraine sufferers, 60-70 percent feel a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Some say the migraine attacks always occur on the same side, while others say that the pain sometimes changes sides. A poll done by migraine.com showed that 51 percent feel their pain on the right side of their head, and 44 percent feel it on the right side (127,600+ votes in total in this poll).

Commonly, migraine sufferers feel pain in the temple or behind one eye. Along with this, they may also experience nausea, sensitivity to light and sound and vomiting.

The sides broken down

So as not to take sides, let’s explore what may cause pain on the left and right side of the head on top of migraines. 

What causes headaches on the right side of your head?


We’ve already determined this, but a migraine is likely to be, but not the only cause of, pain on the right side of your head. Genetics play a big role whether one becomes a migraine sufferer, although it has been found that women are three times more likely to have migraine than men. According to the American Migraine Foundation, over 30 percent of women get affected by migraines in their lifetime. Many migraine sufferers report that migraine attacks feel like a severe throbbing or pulsating sensation, and it normally begins on one side of the head. 

People who suffer from migraines normally experience auras before a migraine attack. In layman’s terms, these are like warning signs that a migraine attack is about to occur. Most auras are visual, and people report vision disturbances like zigzag visions or flashes of light. 

There is still no direct cure for migraines, but there are plenty of ways to manage migraines and live with them. Examples of natural ways to manage migraine pains are to eliminate certain foods that “trigger” migraines (such as processed foods and alcohol), apply ice packs for headaches or migraines and get adequate sleep and hydration.

Sinus infections or allergies

Sinus inflammation may cause headaches due to pressure and pain behind the cheeks and forehead. If one sinus is more inflamed than the other, it may also cause a concentration of pain to one side of the head. Apart from over-the-counter medication for allergies or sinusitis, some known methods to relieve sinusitis are taking hot showers, doing salt and water nasal rinses, getting hydrated and getting steam therapy.

Overuse of medication

It may sound ironic, but when you take an excessive dose of medication to treat headaches, this can actually cause more headaches. The WHO (World Health Organization) says that MOH (medication-overuse headache) affects up to 5 percent of some populations. This type of headache is usually felt in the mornings when you first wake. Avoiding this is quite simple: stick to natural and drug-free ways to manage headache pain. 

Occipital neuralgia

This is a neurological issue that occurs when the nerves in the spine of the upper neck, the ones that run through the muscles to our scalp, get irritated. When this happens, the nerves can cause shooting, electric or tingling pain, often only on one side of the head. This can only be diagnosed by a physician.

Tension headaches

This is the most common type of headache which occurs in about 75 percent of adults. Based on its name, tension headaches occur when muscles in the head and neck regions contract. Some say that tension headaches feel like having a tight band wrapped around their foreheads. 

Some people develop tension headaches after looking at screens and monitors for a long time. Driving for an extended period of time may also cause this kind of headache Other triggers include alcohol, eye strain, fatigue and smoking. 

This is the type of headache normally taken care of by over-the-counter medicine such as ibuprofen or aspirin. However, drug-free methods such as drinking more water, not skipping meals and getting enough sleep are recommended as well. 

What causes headaches on the left side of your head?


When one gets migraine attacks, it usually begins on one side of the head. There are equal chances for this to occur on either side. A migraine attack typically lasts between 4-72 hours. It’s important to be vigilant and note what triggers your migraine attacks. For some it can be stress, certain food (like chocolate, processed foods and alcohol), getting little sleep and strong, overpowering scents and odours.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches make up to 42 percent of headaches worldwide. The pain from tension headaches can occur on any side of the head. The pain from a tension headache is normally less severe than migraines; however, they can still cause enough pain to debilitate someone momentarily. Tension headaches often begin as tight, pressing pain behind the eyes, spreading across the forehead and towards the back of the head. Very often, the pain feels worse at the end of the day. 

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of headaches that occur in cyclical patterns or cluster periods. This consists of severe headaches on one side of the head and it normally awakens one in the middle of the night with sharp, intense pain in or around one eye or one side of the head. 

Currently, there is no specific medical test to diagnose cluster headache, so a physician will need to take a note of the history of all symptoms in order to correctly diagnose whether one does have a cluster headache.

Sticking to a regular sleep schedule and avoiding alcohol are two known drug-free ways to avoid cluster headaches.

When should you see a doctor for your left- or right-side headache pain?

It doesn’t matter which side your headache pain occurs, if you experience any of the following, it’s time to seek professional medical advice:

  • If these headaches only first developed when you’re over the age of 50.
  • If your headaches steadily get worse.
  • If these headaches happen after a blunt force or blow to the head.
  • If you notice a significant change in the pattern of your headache.
  • If the headaches cause your mental functions and personality to change.

Do you also experience unilateral kinds of headache? Do any of the symptoms above sound similar? Send us a message, and we can discuss headache issues, including headache pain management.

Back to blog