In a previous blog, I examined the medical research on individuals that suffer severe headaches as a result of having sex (known in the clinical and medical literature as ‘coital cephalalgia’ and ‘benign coital headache’). In such circumstances, the headache typically occurs at the brink of orgasm. While researching that particular blog, I also came across a number of papers (mainly case studies) that reported that these types of headache could also occur during masturbation (known as ‘benign masturbatory cephalalgia’ (BMC). (Here, the term ‘benign’ defines a primary headache syndrome not caused by any intracranial disorder).
The first paper that I read on BMC was a case account by Dr. Frederick Vincent in a 1982 issue the Archives of Neurology. Although benign orgasmic cephalgia had already been well described in the medical literature (particularly among males), Dr. Vincent reported the case of a 28-year old woman with orgasmic cephalalgia that developed during masturbation. This was reported by Dr. Vincent as the first ever case of BMC. The young woman “suffered a sudden throbbing occipital headache as she became orgasmic by masturbation”. The headache lasted an hour accompanied by mild nausea, but no other neurologic symptoms. As a result of this case, Dr. Vincent argued that the term ‘coital cephalagia’ should be dropped and simply called ‘orgasmic cephalagia’ irrespective of whether the headache was self-induced (i.e., masturbatory) or caused by having sexual intercourse.
Following the publication of Vincent’s case study, Dr. James Lance immediately responded in the same journal saying that he had reported the cases of three of his patients whose headaches were brought on by masturbation. Lance also agreed that the term coital cephalalgia was too restrictive, but then argued that:
“Orgasmic cephalalgia ignores the premonitory headache that may build up as sexual excitement mounts before orgasm. Benign sex headache (using ‘sex’ in the popular sense) is an all-embracing, albeit unpoetic, term and is comparable with benign cough headache. It is worth emphasizing that neither condition is always benign”.
A 2004 case study published by Dr. Marcelo Valenca and colleagues in the journal Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain noted that only five cases of patients with thunderclap headache precipitated by sexual activity had been identified in the medical literature. In their paper, they reported the case of a 44-year-old woman that suffered both coital and masturbatory headaches during orgasm. After carrying out a number of medical tests they concluded that the women had experienced cerebral arterial narrowing shortly after her orgasmic headache attacks and that this “supported the hypothesis that segmental vasospasm may exert a role in the pathogenesis of this uncommon type of headache”.
A number of papers on orgasmic cephalagia have been published by Dr. Achim Frese and his colleagues. In a 2004 issue of the journal Neurology, Frese led a study examining the demography, clinical features, and comorbidity of headache associated with sexual activity (HSA) in interviews of 51 participants. They reported that HSA was not dependent on specific sexual habits and most often occurred during sexual activity with the usual partner (94%) and during masturbation (35%).
A 1998 paper by Dr. Daniel Jacome in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain reported something slightly different but related to BMC. More specifically, Dr. Jacome reported the cases of two single men described as having masturbatory-orgasmic extracephalic pain (i.e., an ice-pick like pain that occurred in the neck of one of the men, and in the groin and genitalia of the other). Both men had pre-existing medical conditions (i.e., compressive spondylitic cervical myelopathy in the first case, and a tethered cord and intraspinal lipoma in the second case). These two unusual cases represent examples of extracephalic ice picklike pain triggered by sexual activity, in the absence of orgasmic cephalgia.
A more recent 2012 paper by Dr. Amy Gelfand and Dr. Peter Goadsby in the journal Pediatrics examined primary sexual headaches in two male adolescents. One of the two cases (a 16-year-old boy) developed headaches at the moment of orgasm, building up in intensity over 5 to 10 seconds, and then continuing for between 10 seconds to 2 minutes before stopping. The authors also reported that headaches occurred irrespective of whether orgasm was achieved through intercourse or masturbation. He was not formally treated because after several months, the patient no longer experienced the headaches with orgasm.
Finally, a 2006 paper by Dr. Ambar Chakravarty in the journal Cephalalgia examined data from 24 Indian patients (18 males and 6 females) over a 20-year period (1985–2004) that suffered preorgasmic headaches. Dr. Ambar reported that three of the youngest male patients (aged 19–23 years) had experienced masturbatory headache. One of the female patients (aged 30 years) only experienced orgasmic headache during masturbation (i.e., she never experienced headaches during sexual intercourse).
Summarizing the medical literature on orgasmic cephalagia as a whole (i.e., on coital and masturbatory cephalagia), the 2012 paper by Gelfand and Goadsby concluded that:
“The orgasmic subtype of primary sex headache is more common than the gradual onset pre-orgasm type and has received more attention in the medical literature…In the orgasmic subtype, headache onset is explosive and severe. Orgasms achieved through either sexual intercourse or masturbation can trigger the headache. The headache location is variable, although most often bilateral. The quality is typically pounding or throbbing. Duration of headache ranges from minutes to several hours. Age at onset is classically in the late thirties or early forties, and there is a male predominance. The natural history of the disorder is that after several months it typically remits, although some patients will have a chronic course lasting over a year, and recurrences are possible”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Chakravarty, A. (2006). Primary headaches associated with sexual activity—some observations in Indian patients. Cephalalgia, 26(2), 202-207.
Frese, A., Eikermann, A., Frese, K., Schwaag, S., Husstedt, I. W., & Evers, S. (2003). Headache associated with sexual activity: Demography, clinical features, and comorbidity. Neurology, 61(6), 796-800.
Gelfand, A.A., & Goadsby, P.J. (2012). Primary sex headache in adolescents. Pediatrics, 130(2), e439-e441.
Jacome, D.E. (1998). Masturbatory-orgasmic extracephalic pain. Headache: Journal of Head and Face Pain, 38(2), 138-141.
Lance, J. W. (1976). Headaches related to sexual activity. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 39(12), 1226-1230.
Lance, J. W. (1983). Benign masturbatory cephalalgia. Archives of Neurology, 40(6), 393.
Østergaard, J. R., & Kraft, M. (1992). Benign coital headache. Cephalalgia, 12(6), 353-355.
Redelman, M. (2010). What if the ‘sexual headache’ is not a joke. British Journal of Medical Practitioners, 3(1), 40-44.
Valenca, M. M., Valenca, L. P., Bordini, C. A., Da Silva, W. F., Leite, J. P., Antunes‐Rodrigues, J., & Speciali, J. G. (2004). Cerebral vasospasm and headache during sexual intercourse and masturbatory orgasms. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 44(3), 244-248.
Vincent, F. M. (1982). Benign masturbatory cephalalgia. Archives of Neurology, 39(10), 673.