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Published on January 09, 2017

When to See Your Doctor for a Headache

They can be pounding or aching. Some last for just a few minutes while others drag on for days. Headaches come in many varieties and durations and some, such as migraines, can be debilitating. Knowing when you can treat a headache on your own and when to talk to your doctor is important, since a headache could be a symptom of a more serious problem.

“Virtually everyone has experienced a headache at one point in their life,” said Brad Klein, MD, a neurologist at Abington – Jefferson Health. “While it’s rare for them to be dangerous, you should see your doctor when they are frequent, interfere with your life or accompany other symptoms that may indicate a health issue.”

The Different Types of Headaches

Headaches fall into two broad categories based on what causes them: primary headaches and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are not caused by any specific disease. Instead, they usually originate with some benign problem or over-activity in the structures of your head. This could be a problem with the nerves around your blood vessels, the muscles of your head and neck or chemical activity in your brain.

However, just because they are not dangerous doesn’t mean they aren’t severely painful. In fact, two of the common primary headaches – cluster headaches and migraines – are so painful that they can wake you up from a sound sleep, increase your sensitivity to sound and light, and lead to nausea and vomiting. Migraines can also be mistaken for sinus headaches.

There are several other types of primary headaches in addition to cluster headaches and migraines. A tension headache can cause mild to moderate pain that feels like a tight band around your head. A trigeminal neuralgia may not be thought of has a headache, but it is associated with facial pain affecting the nerves responsible for facial sensations, chewing and biting.

A secondary headache is different than a primary headache because there is something else, such as a medical condition or a disease, that causes it. There is a wide range of causes for secondary headaches, from sinusitis and brain tumors to hangovers and the flu.

Make an Appointment with Your Doctor

“It can be difficult to determine on your own what’s causing a headache,” said Dr. Klein. “A good rule of thumb is that if it worries you, is more severe than your typical headache or occurs more frequently than usual, talk to your doctor.”

In addition to headaches that are more severe or frequent, you should see your doctor if your headache does not improve with the use of over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). You should also make an appointment if they keep you from working or enjoying normal activities.

Some Headaches Are Emergencies

“If you’re experiencing the worst headache of your life, or a headache that is sudden and severe, you should consider it an emergency,” said Dr. Klein. “These headaches may be associated with serious conditions such as stroke, meningitis or encephalitis.”

You should also seek emergency medical care for headaches that are accompanied by:

  • Dizziness or trouble walking
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or abnormal behavior
  • Fever, shortness of breath, stiff neck or rash
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your body.

If your headache is combined with any of these symptoms, call 911.

Abington – Jefferson Health's Headache Center is located at Abington Health Center – Warminster. For information, call 215-441-6757.

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