Why Does Sinusitis Cause Headaches?

Aug 08, 2023
Why Does Sinusitis Cause Headaches?
Is it a headache or sinus pressure? Maybe it’s both. Our specialist takes a closer look at sinusitis and explains why sinusitis can cause pounding pain in your head that mimics a migraine.

If you’re one of the nearly 29 million Americans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are diagnosed with sinusitis every year, you’re likely familiar with the pounding pain in your forehead and cheeks that worsens every time you move your head. This is a classic symptom of sinusitis.

Dr. Philip T. Ho at Silicon Valley ENT & Sinus Center in Los Gatos, California, specializes in accurately diagnosing and treating ear, nose, and throat issues, including sinusitis, the driving factor behind sinus headaches.

Here’s what Dr. Ho and his team say about sinusitis, its causes, and why it causes headaches.

Sinus anatomy

The sinuses are four pairs of hollow spaces in the skull, near the cheekbones, between the eyes, and behind the nasal cavity. Each sinus is lined with a soft, pink tissue known as mucosa and connected to the nasal cavity through small channels called ostia.

Sinusitis, commonly referred to as a sinus infection, triggers inflammation and swelling in the sinuses. This congestion is also the trigger for sinus headaches.

How do inflamed sinuses cause headaches?

Sinusitis, or inflammation of the sinuses, causes headaches in several ways:

Pressure and swelling

Sinuses swell and produce extra mucus when they become inflamed or infected, as when sinusitis occurs. This results in increased pressure on the surrounding tissues, including the nerves, which is felt as a headache.

Blockage of normal sinus drainage

Sinuses are designed to drain mucus regularly, keeping the nasal passages clear. However, when you have sinusitis, this drainage is blocked, causing the mucus to build up, creating pressure that results in a headache.

Referred pain 

Pain can travel along areas that a nerve serves (dermatome) and can sometimes be “referred.” Referred pain occurs in a location different from where the problem is occurring.

The nerves of the face and sinuses are interconnected, so pain from the sinuses can be felt in the head, creating the sensation of a headache.

How can I tell it’s a sinus headache?

Pain from sinus headaches is typically located in the forehead, around the eyes and cheeks, or in the upper teeth.

A sinus headache tends to be worse in the morning due to mucus collection overnight. You’ll also notice worsening when bending over or lying down, due to increased pressure on an already full sinus cavity.

Other symptoms associated with sinusitis and sinus headaches include:

  • Nasal inflammation and congestion
  • Thick, discolored nasal drainage
  • Sore throat
  • Postnasal drainage (down the back of the throat)
  • Jaw and tooth pain
  • Ear pain
  • Tenderness, redness, and swelling around the eyes, cheeks, or nose
  • Reduced sense of smell or taste
  • Fever

Notably, what many people describe as "sinus headaches" are migraines or tension headaches. These headache types may have similar symptoms but generally don’t include fever, ear pain, nasal drainage, or other hallmarks of a sinus infection.

For answers to what’s driving your sinus infections and accompanying headaches, schedule a visit with Dr. Ho at Silicon Valley ENT & Sinus Center today. Call the office or request an appointment online.