When to See a Doctor for Your Headaches

More than 45 million Americans suffer from recurring headaches. How do you know when to see a doctor about your headaches? If you experience debilitating headaches on a regular basis, if your headaches are interfering with your daily life, or if the recommended dose of over-the-counter pain relievers no longer does the trick, you should schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible:

  • An intense, severe headache that comes on quickly, without warning, especially if you are normally headache-free.
  • Sudden, severe headache if you suffer from kidney problems, heart disease or high blood pressure.
  • A headache following a head injury, especially if the headache includes feelings of nausea, dizziness, or blurred vision.
  • A headache accompanied by seizures.
  • A headache accompanied by memory loss, confusion, loss of balance, slurred speech or vision, or numbness in arms or legs.

A common fear is that the sudden onset of serious headaches may be the sign of a brain tumor. Headache is rarely the first sign of a brain tumor. A headache accompanied by seizures, change in mental function and vomiting could signal a neurological disorder such as a brain tumor, so seek medical attention immediately following such episodes.

Before You See a Doctor

When it is time to seek non-urgent help, take the following steps to prepare for a visit with the doctor. By educating yourself on various types of headaches, symptoms and treatment, and by being prepared for healthcare professionals' questions, you'll get the most out of an initial evaluation.

Keep a headache diary (right) over the preceding weeks, which will help your doctor diagnose your headache and prescribe appropriate treatment. Spend some time tracking your individual headache triggers, and track your headaches in a diary. These tools, along with a list of medications, will help your doctor in diagnosing your headaches.

Information to Know Before Your Visit

To determine the type and cause of your headaches, your doctor will take a complete medical history and ask detailed questions about your headaches. Before your appointment, consider the following:

  • How often do you experience headaches? What kind of pain accompanies your headaches?
  • Where are the headaches located and what words describe your headaches (piercing, splitting, pounding, blinding, throbbing)?
  • What triggers your headaches — certain foods, hormonal factors (menstruation in women), stress, environmental factors (certain weather patterns)?
  • Do you experience any other symptoms before onset of a headache, such as dizziness, sensitivity to light or vomiting?
  • What, if anything, provides relief during these headaches? Do you lie down in a dark room, or do you keep moving? Do you use over the counter pain medication, and is it helpful?
  • What kind of medications do you take? It is important for your healthcare provider to know all of the medications you take, both prescription, over-the-counter, or any herbal supplements. Take a complete list of your medications with you and be sure to include everything, even if you think it is unrelated to your headaches, including such substances as birth control pills, vitamins, antacids, or anti-depressants.

It is not necessary to see a headache specialist for your first visit, although you may be referred to one. Start with an appointment with your general practitioner. Be prepared for the following at this appointment:

  • Your physician will take a detailed personal and medical history from you, including medical history of family members. At this time you will share your headache diary, triggers and list of medications with the physician.
  • Your physician will also perform a physical examination. In addition to examining your head and neck, your doctor will ask you to perform simple reflex, coordination and sensation tests.
  • If a physical examination indicates there may be serious complications, more extensive tests may be performed, such as a neck x-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or a CT (computed tomography). These tests can reveal any spinal disorders and may rule out any brain disorders, including a brain tumor.

To locate a primary care physician or a neurologist, our Physician Report Card area allows you to search medical specialties by name, zip code or city.

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