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Scalp pain

Scalp Pain & Tenderness: Causes, Diagnosis & Relief


I have had my hair braided my whole life. I am familiar with not knowing how to place my head to sleep, having a hairdresser pull my hair so tight, it hurts to laugh, and slowly backing away when someone came to touch my hair. But that was a brief pain, happening once every a month or two and with an obvious culprit.

If your scalp is sensitive to being touched, combed or pressed more persistently, it may be something to be concerned about.

Why is my scalp painful and tender?
Why is it painful and tender?


Most people complain about the following on their scalp:

  • Dryness and itchiness
  • Itchy bumps 
  • Tender or sensitive scalp
  • Sore head
  • Presence of scabs/ sores 
  • Spots appearance 

Let’s explore the possible causes, but remember that excessively painful and severe tenderness should be discussed with a doctor.

Causes of a painful & sensitive scalp


The scalp can also suffer sunburn. This makes sense especially because the top of your head is almost directly underneath the sun. This is more likely where the hair is thinning out in some areas.

Other elements such as cold and wind, can also cause sensitivity. 

While rare, the tenderness can be a sign of more severe health conditions such as skin cell cancers and melanomas. These conditions normally present themselves as new or changed moles or stubborn sores.


Dandruff can be caused by many things- some of which we discuss in this article. Depending on how severe, dandruff can cause scaly red patches on the scalp. This may make it sensitive to touch.  

Dandruff can cause pain or tenderness

Excessive chemical exposure:

These are chemicals we willingly put into our hair and environmental chemicals as well. Although they fall outside the scope of products used regularly (shampoo, conditioner) they can sometimes be overused.

These chemicals include hair dyes, chemical treatments, and curling kits. Prolonged use of these and other potentially dangerous chemicals could lead to scalp sensitivity.


Tension headaches and migraines are the main types that cause this tenderness. Tension headaches are worsened by stress, anxiety or depression. Allergies and asthma are also known to cause headaches or scalp tenderness from coughing too much.

Temporal arteritis is where the blood cells are inflamed and usually leads to temple headaches and sensitivity of the scalp.

Trauma and hair loss

Any type of trauma to the head is likely to cause bruising. The tenderness in that area may cause scalp pain. Trauma may also lead to a headache.

The same proves true for hair loss, where the areas where loss of hair occurs are found to be rather sensitive. This symptom is known as trichodynia.

Medium risk causes

Besides the above, here are medium risk triggers for this problem:

Skin disorders

Certain skin disorders like seborrheic dermatitis can cause tenderness. Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that is chronically inflammatory. Symptoms besides pain include itchy patches, red in color and dry and flaky.

 Another common skin disorder is psoriasis. Scalp psoriasis presents itself in the same red and itchy patches. These develop when the rate of skin cell growth increases.

Scratching worsens both conditions.

Seborrheic dermatitis
Seborrheic dermatitis on a baby

Infections and invasions

Hair follicle infections and fungal scalp infections can cause pain and sensitivity. 

Examples of hair follicle infections include Folliculitis, Furunculosis, and Carbunculosis.  Scalp folliculitis shows itself in pimples or small bumps along the hairline.

Tinea Capitis and Tinea Versicolor are examples of fungal infection that can trigger this problem. They result in hair loss.

Lice also cause itching and scratching leading to a sore head. They can live in your head for almost 30 days and longer if they lay eggs. Which they will.

Bacterial skin infections, ringworm, and even shingles may all cause or result in, scalp tenderness.

Doctors diagnosis

The doctor will examine your scalp, ask for a medical history, and collect hair follicles for testing depending on the severity of the condition.

Doctors will ask general questions too with the aim of narrowing down the problem. The questions include diet, previous injuries, exercise, daily routine, recent changes, etc.

After diagnosis, the doctor will usually provide medicine depending on his discovery,


There are some basic things you can do at home to help alleviate the pain:

Use a special shampoo

Although regular shampoo may not necessarily cause scalp tenderness, using a special shampoo designed for dryness, itchiness, or flakiness.

Head & Shoulders is a good shampoo and easily accessible in most places.

Use essential oils

Some oils such as lavender or rosemary are particularly useful in helping with sores or scabs on the scalp.

Mix 1 glass of warm water with ½ tsp of the oil of your choice. After thoroughly mixing it, apply the mixture to and massage it for a while. Wait 15-20 minutes and then wash it off.

Make sure to perform a skin test on the mixture to prevent a negative reaction. 

Relieve scalp pain

Sometimes, especially the pain is caused by a tension headache, a scalp massage may work wonders in relieving pain. Using your fingertip, massage in circular motions.

If it is incredibly itchy, ice application every 10 minutes may help. fair warning though, it will be very cold.

Eating a better diet and engaging in stretching exercise can help relax the body and release tension. This can be just the thing you need to ease your pain.


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