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Have a Headache? Here’s When You Should See a Doctor

June 22, 2017

We’ve all experienced a headache at least once in our lives. In some cases, it may be the result of dehydration, lack of sleep, a concussion or other trauma. But sometimes a headache may be linked to a more serious underlying condition or illness.

How do you know when to see a doctor? Here are some things to look out for.

Types of Headaches

There are different forms of headaches and some of the most common include:

  • Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches involve intense, constant pain on one side of your head. These headaches occur frequently over a short period of time at the same time of day or night. There’s no identifiable cause for cluster headaches, but getting regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and smoking, sticking to a regular sleep schedule can reduce your risk and using over-the-counter medications can help to ease symptoms.
  • Migraines: These headaches usually involve intense pain on one side of the head and come with symptoms like flashes of light in your vision, nausea and vomiting. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, about 37 million Americans suffer from migraines and it is the third most common condition in the world. Migraines, which can last up to 72 hours, usually cause people to miss work or keep them from performing everyday activity — 90 percent of people are unable to work or function during their migraine, according to the foundation.
  • Tension headaches: These headaches are the most common form of headaches and typically come with mild pain that spreads from the neck and can affect both sides of the head. Tension headaches can be acute or chronic, meaning they can last a short time (as little as a few hours) or be ongoing (15 days or more).

Headaches usually can be treated at home with proper rest or over-the-counter medications, but there are times when seeking medical care may be necessary, depending on your symptoms.

When to See a Doctor

Headaches become a problem when they have overtaken your life and are prominent more than 15 days a month (chronic headaches). As I mentioned, there are multiple types of headaches, some of which can be indicators of bigger health issues, including serious sinus conditions, chronic migraines and cluster headaches.

If over-the-counter medication on its own doesn’t ease your headache or you’ve grown immune to it, you should see a physician as soon as possible. Symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, slurred speech, numbness and trouble walking also are red flags. If you have these symptoms, it’s best to err on the side of caution and seek medical help.

If you’ve had to visit the emergency room for a headache, it’s important to see a physician after your ER visit for a follow up, so he or she can determine if you have a condition or if there’s another pressing health issue. Your physician can tell you if this is something they can treat or if you will need to see a specialist for additional help. In some cases, you may need to take daily preventive medicine or your physician may prescribe abortive medicine that treats your headache or migraine at the onset of symptoms.

It’s also important for patients to be aware that some headaches may be more serious. If you’ve had head trauma, such as a fall, car accident or a direct hit or blow to your head, and you develop a headache, then you should go to the emergency room for imaging. Medical conditions like high blood pressure, dehydration, blood vessel malformation and infection can cause headaches, too. If you’ve ever had an acute headache that comes on suddenly, you also may need to go to the emergency room for further imaging.

Certain headaches can also appear as though they are strokes. If you are having a hemiplegic migraine — a rare migraine that manifests with numbness, blindness, and/or slurred speech or inability to understand speech — you should seek emergency care immediately.

There are several key differences between a migraine and stroke. A stroke is sudden, while migraine symptoms occur gradually. Also, migraines typically occur for the first time when someone is younger. If you are older and have a severe headache that you think is a migraine, it could be a different health issue if you’ve had no previous history of this condition.

When seeking medical care, it’s important that you let the physician know the symptoms of your migraine. If you’ve never had this type of a migraine before, tell the doctor you aren’t sure if this is a migraine or a stroke, so he or she can do a full workup and provide an accurate diagnosis. Often, physicians won’t be able to diagnose your condition until they do an assessment, so it’s important to go to the hospital if you are having these symptoms, rather than stay home and risk it.

Headaches are common. According to the World Health Organization, at least 50 percent of all adults have had a headache at least once in the last year.

However, if you begin to experience frequent headaches, try to narrow down the causes by keeping a symptom journal. If your headache is accompanied by other symptoms like slurred speech, vision problems or trouble walking, if you’ve had headaches for at least 15 or more days in a month or experience a sudden onset of symptoms, make note of this in the journal, schedule an appointment to see a doctor right away and provide him or her with these details.

Over-the-counter medication or sleeping it off may not work in these situations — and avoiding a doctor even could make your symptoms worse. Even if your condition isn’t serious, discovering the underlying cause can help you get relief and return to your normal routine.

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