Thunderclap headaches live up to their name, striking suddenly like a clap of thunder. The pain of these severe headaches peaks within 60 seconds.
Thunderclap headaches are uncommon, but they can warn of potentially life-threatening conditions — usually having to do with bleeding in and around the brain. Seek emergency medical attention for a thunderclap headache.
Thunderclap headaches are dramatic. Symptoms include pain that:
- Strikes suddenly and severely
- Peaks within 60 seconds
- Can be accompanied by nausea or vomiting
Thunderclap headaches might be accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as:
- Altered mental state
These signs and symptoms might reflect the underlying cause.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical attention for any headache that comes on suddenly and severely.
There's no obvious cause for some thunderclap headaches. In other cases, a variety of potentially life-threatening conditions might be responsible, including:
- Bleeding between the brain and membranes covering the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage)
- A rupture of a blood vessel in the brain
- A tear in the lining of an artery that supplies blood to the brain
- Leaking of cerebrospinal fluid — usually due to a tear of the covering around a nerve root in the spine
- Death of tissue or bleeding in the pituitary gland
- A blood clot in the brain
- Severe elevation in blood pressure (hypertensive crisis)
- Infection such as meningitis or encephalitis
- Ischemic stroke