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Are Severe Headaches a Cause for Concern?

Are Severe Headaches a Cause for Concern?

Are Severe Headaches a Cause for Concern?

Almost everyone gets headaches now and then. Most of the time, head pain is just annoying and will go away on its own or with over-the-counter medication. But what about severe headaches?

Approximately 1 in 6 people experiences a severe headache or migraine every three months — and some may even experience chronic daily headaches, such as cluster headaches and tension headaches.

Not every headache is a medical emergency, though frequent headaches may cause you some anxiety. Knowing when to seek medical attention for your headaches can help keep your mind at ease.

Recognizing a Serious Headache

There’s no exact way to measure headache strength. However, a severe headache hurts more than other types of headaches you’ve experienced, and may cause other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.

Recognizing the arrival of a severe headache can help you to get relief faster. A severe headache may:

  • Arise after exercise or sexual intercourse
  • Bring about changes in personality or cognitive ability
  • Cause pain and redness in your eye(s)
  • Cause vision, balance, memory, or mobility issues; nausea and vomiting; fever; neck stiffness; weight loss; or pain when chewing
  • Change in frequency or severity
  • Come on immediately and feel incredibly painful
  • Happen regularly
  • Make it difficult to fall or stay asleep
  • Occur following a head injury
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Worsen over a period of 24 hours

Additionally, having a disease or medication that weakens your immune system could cause severe headaches. If you have a personal history of cancer and experience headaches you’ve not had in the past during or following treatment, be sure to discuss that with your provider.

What Causes Severe Headaches

Headaches can be caused by bright lights, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, lack of sleep, skipping meals, and certain medications.

While no headache is pleasant, most are not dangerous.

When experiencing regular, severe headaches, talk to your doctor who can identify the cause and get you some relief. Causes of severe headaches can include:

  • Bleeding in or around the brain
  • Blockages that prevent blood from exiting the brain
  • Brain aneurysm
  • Excessively high blood pressure
  • Infection in or around brain tissue
  • Inflammation and swelling within arteries leading to the head and neck
  • Pressure inside the skull that may or may not result from a brain tumor
  • Swelling of the brain caused by head injury, carbon monoxide poisoning, or altitude sickness

What to Do When a Severe Headache Strikes

If you’re unsure what is causing your severe headache, make an appointment with your provider or visit a walk-in clinic and explain your symptoms.

Your provider can then determine the appropriate diagnostic testing to help identify the cause and find a treatment that may provide.

Based on your symptoms, the test results and your medical history, your provider may also recommend that you see a specialist at an ear, nose and throat or neurology clinic.

If you have a severe headache that causes extreme, unbearable pain, call 911.

Rooting Out Your Pain

Sometimes, detecting the cause of severe headaches requires specific medical tests. Your provider may consider the following:

  • Allergy testing. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, skin testing is the most common method used for detecting allergies. During this test, potential allergens are injected under your skin. If you’re allergic, your skin swells at the injection site.
  • Blood or urine tests. A small blood draw or urine sample can go a long way toward determining the cause of your headaches. These tests help identify the presence of damaged blood vessels or dangerous toxins. Both tests can also detect infections within the brain or spinal cord.
  • Imaging examinations. Should your provider suspect blood vessel or bone abnormalities, imaging tests may help. CT and MRI technology may be used to scan for internal issues such as inflammation, tumors, irregular bones, and other conditions that could be associated with your headaches.
  • Electroencephalograms. Also known as an EEG, this test shows brain activity. It helps detect and diagnose seizures, brain tumors, and other issues that may cause severe headaches.

While you wait to be tested or for test results to be processed, you may find temporary relief from a severe headache by:

  • Avoiding headache triggers, such as certain foods, smells, or environments
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Trying over-the-counter medication or prescription medication to stop or prevent headaches
  • Resting in a quiet, dark room

Help Your Diagnostic Team

You can help your provider determine the cause of your severe headaches by keeping a headache journal, which is a useful way to track your headache history. Share your journal with your care team to help them identify patterns and factors that may be causing your pain.

To create a headache journal, all you need is a notepad or note app on your smartphone. Every time you experience a headache, note when the headache occurred, along with the following:

  • Activities you were involved with shortly before the headache began
  • Life or work-related situations that were causing stress or strong emotions
  • Medications and supplements taken, along with the time you took them
  • Sleep quality and quantity of the night before
  • Symptoms that accompanied the severe headache
  • Weather conditions
  • What you ate and drank in the previous 24 hours

Women keeping a headache journal may also consider making note of where they were in their menstrual period leading up to and during the headache. Hormonal fluctuations, particularly in estrogen levels, can trigger headaches in some women.

Do you struggle with frequent headaches? Find a provider at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County to help you understand your headaches and find relief.