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My Scalp Hurts When I Move My Hair: All About Scalp Tenderness
Dr Ahmad Moussa (FRCS)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Ahmad Moussa (FRCS)
Updated on June 9, 2024

If your scalp hurts when you move your hair, you may be wondering if you are suffering from a common scalp problem. Many such conditions, like seborrheic dermatitis [1], atopic dermatitis or scalp psoriasis [2] can indeed cause scalp tenderness. But so could environmental factors, like sunburn, or neurological conditions like migraines or tension headaches [3]. Or, like over 25% of the population, you may just have a sensitive scalp [4]. 

There are numerous reasons why you may experience a tender, painful or itchy scalp when you move or touch your hair. Some of these are mild and go away without intervention, while others can be a sign of a more serious condition and require medical assistance. 

It is a good idea to see a trichologist if your scalp hurts or feels tender for more than a few days. But if this is not an option, there are ways to identify the causes of your scalp discomfort and relieve your pain. 

Keep reading to find out all you need to know about the most common reasons your scalp hurts when moving your hair, plus:

  • What scalp tenderness is
  • What can cause scalp tenderness
  • How to treat a tender or inflamed scalp
  • Whether scalp tenderness means hair loss
Table of Contents

What is scalp tenderness?

Scalp tenderness is a feeling of discomfort, pain, itching, tingling or a burning sensation on your scalp when touching it or moving your hair. It may happen every time you move your hair or only some of the time and the pain can range in intensity from mild to moderate. 

Scalp tenderness can occur all over your scalp or maybe more intense in certain areas. For example, if you have worn your ponytail too tight or worn hair extensions for several hours, you might experience some tenderness around the outer edges of your scalp (be aware that wearing tight ponytails can cause hair loss and heavy extensions can cause hair loss as well, as they can lead to traction alopecia).

If you experience severe pain when moving your hair and/or notice lesions, sores or scabs on your scalp, see a dermatologist or a trichologist as soon as possible, as there is a risk of infection or a more serious underlying condition.

Why does it hurt when I move my hair?

As your hair moves, it tugs at the follicles which are rooted in your scalp. If your scalp is tender or sensitive, this can cause pain or discomfort.

There can be numerous reasons why it hurts when you move your hair. Here are some of the most common:

Woman with sunburns

1. Sunburns

Why it happens: Too much sunlight is not good for your hair or scalp. While it can make your hair dry and brittle, but it can also cause burns to the sensitive skin that covers your head. 

How to recognise it: Your scalp may turn pink or red and you may experience burning, pain and tenderness that is more severe on hairless spots (e.g. your parting or balding spots). You may also feel your scalp is hot to the touch, and in more severe forms, you may develop blisters. 

How to treat it: The first thing you want to do is protect your scalp from further exposure to sunlight and cool your skin down. You can use a cool compress (not ice packs!) and aftersun cream. If your pain is severe, you can take over-the-counter painkillers. Avoid popping your blisters, and try not to rub or scratch the burnt area. 

Woman with tender scalp from mechanical tension

2. Mechanical tension

Why it happens: When you wear tight hairdos (e.g. ponytails, top knots) or heavy extensions for a prolonged amount of time, they pull on your hair roots.  

How to recognise it: After wearing tight or heavy hairstyles or accessories for long periods of time, you may experience scalp tenderness, tingling or burning. This can be especially intense shortly after removing the source of tension. 

How to treat it: The only thing you need to do is stop wearing tight hairstyles or heavy accessories for a while, giving your scalp time to heal. This will not only stop your scalp tenderness but also keep traction alopecia at bay. 

Minor scalp trauma

3. Scalp trauma

Why it happens: Sometimes, you may hit, scrape or cut your scalp without realising it. Or a tight or uncomfortable hat, cap or set of headphones may rub against it, causing friction burns.

How to recognise it: Check your scalp carefully for cuts, bumps or any kind of lesions. If your scalp is only tender in one specific spot, check for any skin bruising, swelling or bleeding in the respective area. 

How to treat it: If you have a cut or scrape, be sure to clean and disinfect it. You can use a cold compress to bring down the swelling for bruises or bumps. Be sure to watch out for signs of infection in open wounds (increased pain and inflammation, oozing pus). If you have hit your head, see a medical professional immediately if you experience headaches, vomiting, dizziness or blurry vision, as they may be signs of a concussion. 

Chemical burns on the scalp

4. Chemical burns

Why it happens: Keeping harsh chemicals, such as bleach or hair dye, in your hair for too long can burn your scalp, especially if you have sensitive skin.

How to recognise it: If you have recently used some chemical on your hair, you may develop scalp redness, swelling, burning, pain and tenderness, blistering and/or oozing. This may be a result of chemical burns from leaving it on too long or an allergic reaction to the substances used. 

How to treat it: If you experience chemical burns on your scalp, you need to remove all traces of the substance that caused them. Rinse your head abundantly with cold water. Clean the area gently to avoid infection. If you are in a lot of pain, you can take over-the-counter pain medication. However, if the burns are severe, if they resemble an open wound or if you are having trouble breathing, you need to get emergency care. 

Scalp atopic dermatitis (eczema)

5. Atopic dermatitis (eczema) 

Why it happens: This condition is often inherited and flares up from time to time, especially during times of stress, when exposed to certain allergens or in cold weather. 

How to recognise it: Eczema manifests with patches of dry, cracked, inflamed skin, local tenderness [2] and scalp itching even after washing your hair.

How to treat it: Keep your scalp well-moisturised during an atopic dermatitis flareup. If the symptoms are severe, your GP or dermatologist may prescribe steroid creams or calcineurin inhibitors to reduce inflammation. 

Scalp seborrheic dermatitis

6. Seborrheic dermatitis 

Why it happens: seborrheic dermatitis is a yeast infection of the scalp caused by a fungus called Malassezia furfur [7]. It feeds on the natural oil produced by your skin and hair. 

How to recognise it: The easiest symptom to recognise is the yellow, greasy flakes or scales that cover your scalp. But seborrheic dermatitis also causes scalp itchiness, inflammation, redness, tenderness and diffuse hair loss.

How to treat it: While you cannot fully cure seborrheic dermatitis (it will still flare up occasionally), you can treat its symptoms with medicated shampoos. Ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, salicylic acid and coal tar are often very effective against it.

Scalp folliculitis

7. Scalp Folliculitis

Why it happens: This condition occurs when your hair follicles are irritated or get a bacterial infection. Scalp folliculitis can occur after a hair transplant, after using a hot tub or after sharing hair care tools with someone who carries the respective bacteria.  

How to recognise it:  If you have folliculitis, you may get red, painful pustules (pimples) around your hair roots and experience scalp burning, itching and tenderness.

How to treat it: Mild forms of folliculitis will improve on their own if kept clean. You can use a warm compress to ease the pain and help the pustules drain. However, you may need topical or oral antibiotics if the condition worsens. See a doctor as soon as possible if you develop a fever and/or severe pain.   

Scalp contact dermatitis

8. Contact dermatitis (allergic reaction)

Why it happens: If your scalp comes in contact with a substance you are allergic to, you will develop a reaction. This can even happen with substances you have used before, which is why it is important to test hair care products on a patch of skin before applying them to your scalp. 

How to recognise it: The symptoms of mild contact dermatitis are similar to those of chemical burns: you may get scalp inflammation, redness, significant swelling and tenderness, as well as an itching or burning sensation [9]. More severe symptoms may include a rash and blistering or oozing sores. If your allergy is life-threatening, you may experience difficulty breathing, tightening in your chest and swelling in your entire face, throat and tongue. 

How to treat it: If you are experiencing difficulty breathing or severe swelling, contact emergency services immediately. Otherwise, wash off any trace of the allergen with cool water and take some over-the-counter allergy medication. See your healthcare provider if the reaction does not improve in a couple of days.  

Woman with a migraine headache

9. Migraine headaches 

Why it happens: Migraines are largely genetic and can be triggered by stimuli such as bright lights, an excess of stimulants (e.g., caffeine), hormonal changes, and even certain smells. These triggers cause the blood vessels in your head to dilate, pressing on your nerve endings.

How to recognise it: A migraine usually manifests as a throbbing pain on one side of your head, often behind the eye. It can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and sound and scalp tenderness [3]. Some people also experience neurological symptoms such as numbness or tingling in their face or limbs, seeing bright spots, confusion and fatigue. 

How to treat it: There is no cure for migraines, but their symptoms can be controlled with specific medication prescribed by a neurologist. Identifying and avoiding your triggers can also help you experience fewer attacks.

Man with a tension headache

10. Tension headaches 

Why it happens: The muscles in your head and neck can be overexerted or tense for prolonged periods of time, which can trigger this specific kind of headache.

How to recognise it: You can tell you’re having a tension headache by the dull pain in your head and neck, by the sensation of tightness in your head muscles accompanied by scalp tenderness [10][11].  

How to treat it: You can ease a tension headache by applying a hot or cold compress to your head and neck muscles or getting a relaxing massage. If your pain persists or occurs, you may want to see an orthopedist or a physical therapist. 

Woman with trichodynia

11. Trichodynia  

Why it happens: Also known as burning scalp syndrome,  this condition has unknown origins. However, it is known that it sometimes accompanies hair loss in androgenetic alopecia or telogen effluvium

How to recognise it: You may be experiencing trichodynia if you are also having another form of hair loss and start feeling scalp tenderness, burning, itching, tingling or sensitivity to pressure [12][13]. 

How to treat it: Managing your stress levels can sometimes ease the symptoms of burning scalp syndrome. However, if that does not work, you can try antiinflammatory medication.  

Woman with stress-induced scalp tenderness

12. Stress and anxiety 

Why it happens: Stress and anxiety do not only manifest on a psychological level. They can also produce physical symptoms, such as pain or tenderness.  

How to recognise it: Your scalp tenderness may be anxiety-induced if you have no visible symptoms on your skin (e.g. redness, inflammation) but still experience scalp tenderness, burning, itching or diffuse hair loss [16]. 

How to treat it: You can lower your stress and anxiety levels by exercising, engaging in self-care, practising mindfulness and relaxing hobbies. However, if you feel that your anxiety is severe, you can benefit from seeing a mental health specialist. They can recommend talk therapy and/or antianxiety medication.  

Woman with trichotillomania

13. Trichotillomania 

Why it happens: Trichotillomania is a psychological condition related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It involves pulling out strands of your hair at times of stress or boredom.  

How to recognise it: You can tell that you have this condition if you repeatedly catch yourself pulling out your hair. That can make your scalp irritated, tender and inflamed at the picking site [14]. You may even develop a bald or thinning spot in that area.

How to treat it: Normally, trichotillomania is treated with talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapy often works well for curbing this condition.

Scalp psoriasis

14. Scalp psoriasis 

Why it happens: This is an autoimmune condition, which means your white blood cells are attacking your hair follicles. It causes excessive skin buildup in various areas of your body, including your scalp. 

How to recognise it: Scalp psoriasis can be recognised by the thick, inflamed bald patches it produces, by its silvery flaking, as well as by the scalp burning, itching and tenderness it provokes [15].

How to treat it: While it cannot be fully cured, this condition is often managed with steroid creams or, in more severe cases, with steroid injections

Woman with alopecia areata

15. Alopecia areata 

Why it happens: This type of alopecia is autoimmune and frequently develops during childhood. While it most often causes bald spots, its rare forms can range from diffuse thinning to full head and body hair loss (alopecia universalis).

How to recognise it: In most cases, alopecia areata produces round, smooth, patchy bald spots on the scalp. In some cases, it can also be accompanied by scalp tenderness. 

How to treat it: There is no permanent cure for alopecia areata, but it is normally controlled with corticosteroids or JAK inhibitors. Some therapies, such as low-level laser therapy or PRP hair treatment, may also have some positive effects on it.   

Is it normal for your scalp to hurt when you move your hair?

It is generally not normal to experience pain or tenderness on your scalp unless you have recently bumped your head or undergone a hair procedure that has scalp discomfort as a known side effect. 

While scalp tenderness when moving your hair often isn’t a cause for concern, it is a good idea to monitor it and seek treatment if it progresses or does not improve on its own after a few days.

Woman treating scalp tenderness at home

How to get relief for scalp tenderness at home

Until you can get to a hair specialist to get your scalp tenderness checked out, here are some helpful things you can do at home to alleviate the discomfort you feel when moving your hair:

  • Apply a cool compress to your scalp to reduce inflammation 
  • Keep your scalp clean and moisturised (here are some of the best and worst shampoos for hair loss)
  • If you suspect dandruff, use an anti-fungal shampoo (e.g. ketoconazole shampoo) 
  • Use essential oils for hair which are high in fatty acids, to reduce scalp flaking or itching and possibly even inflammation (e.g. marula oil for hair growth,  argan oil, mustard oil for hair growth, etc.)
  • If you wear tight hairdos, heavy extensions or tight head covers, gently massage your scalp after removing them and avoid wearing them for a while
  • Take some over-the-counter antihistamines if you suspect an allergic reaction. 
  • Try to rest, relax and reduce the stress in your life 
  • Use UV protection if you go out in the sun to prevent additional burning
Woman wondering if scalp tenderness means hair loss

Does scalp tenderness mean hair loss?

The relationship between scalp tenderness and hair loss depends on the reason why your scalp hurts when moving your hair. While some conditions are not likely to cause hair thinning, many others can be associated with some form of hair loss or shedding. 

  • Migraines and tension headaches are not likely accompanied by hair loss unless you vigorously rub your scalp, causing hair breakage at the crown or temples.
  • Mild sunburns or minor scalp trauma are only likely to result in some light, temporary hair shedding, if any.
  • Misusing hair products containing harsh chemicals to the point where you have chemical burns on your scalp means your hair might also be damaged and prone to falling out. For example, overusing bleach and dye can cause hair loss
  • Many dermatological conditions cause some hair to fall out, producing either diffuse hair loss (dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis) [5] or localised bald patches in the affected areas (ringworm).
  • Some auto-immune conditions, such as psoriasis [11], can also cause patchy hair loss in the scalp area affected.
  • Stress and anxiety can lead to telogen effluvium [13], which means temporary excessive hair shedding. This hair loss will resolve itself once its cause is removed (usually lasts up to 6 months).
  • Trichodynia usually accompanies the most common conditions which cause hair loss, such as androgenetic alopecia and telogen effluvium, but it doesn’t seem to cause hair loss on its own [8].
    Trichotillomania leads to mechanical hair loss, by pulling out the strands. It is likely to require psychological intervention to get the compulsion to pull your hair out under control and prevent further hair loss [10].
Woman getting treatment for scalp tenderness

What to do if your scalp hurts when you move your hair?

If you are concerned about a hair and scalp problem, it is best to book a consultation with a trichologist at one of our convenient clinic locations. While in many cases, scalp tenderness is benign and will resolve itself with minimal intervention, if it is caused by an underlying scalp problem, it can lead to complications if left untreated. These can range from infection to scarring and permanent hair loss. 

If you address the issue from the first signs of hair thinning and balding, there is a good chance any hair loss can be reversed or stopped. And if medication is not sufficient to treat your hair thinning, you may be a good candidate for a hair transplant. It is a safe and efficient procedure and the best hair transplant clinics in the UK have a 97-100% success rate. Check out the before and after hair transplant gallery to see the results for yourself. 

My Scalp Hurts When I Move My Hair: All About Scalp Tenderness, Wimpole Clinic

Frequently asked questions

Discover more interesting facts about the reason your scalp may hurt when you move your hair by perusing the answers to these frequently asked questions:

Normally, every ache and pain in the body happens for a reason. However, that doesn’t mean it is always important to know this reason or that it should be a cause for concern. Sometimes, your scalp may be temporarily tender for a completely benign reason, such as sleeping in the wrong position, cold weather or minor hormonal fluctuations. If it is an isolated event that doesn’t last long, you probably don’t need to worry about it. However, if your tenderness persists or worsens, it is best to have it diagnosed.

It is generally a good idea to see a medical professional anytime you are concerned about your health. If you feel that your scalp symptoms are concerning, do not hesitate to address your healthcare provider. It is often safe to wait if your symptoms are mild and seem to improve with home treatment. However, if they suddenly worsen and you develop a fever, vomiting, confusion or difficulty breathing, call emergency services right away.

Yes, head massages that are too forceful, too frequent or last longer than 30 minutes per session can irritate or bruise your scalp. If you have gotten one less than 48 hours before noticing scalp tenderness, try holding off from further head massages for a week or two and see if your tenderness persists.

When your scalp and hair are not cleaned regularly (at least 2-3 times a week), dirt, sebum, and debris can build up. This can sometimes cause irritation or inflammation and may lead to scalp acne or folliculitis. If you have a sensitive scalp, washing it several times a week using a gentle shampoo and conditioner is best. 

Dr Ahmad Moussa (FRCS)
Medically reviewed by Dr Ahmad Moussa (FRCS)Updated on June 9, 2024
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
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