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Headaches - danger signs

Migraine headache - danger signs; Tension headache - danger signs; Cluster headache - danger signs; Vascular headache - danger signs

 

A headache is a pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck.

Common types of headaches include tension headaches, migraine or cluster headaches, sinus headaches, and headaches that begin in your neck. You may have a mild headache with a cold, the flu, or other viral illnesses when you also have a low fever.

Most people with headaches feel better by making lifestyle changes, such as learning ways to relax. Taking certain medicines, such as pain medicine, may also help.

Emergency Causes of Headaches

 

Problems with blood vessels and bleeding in the brain can cause a headache. These problems include:

  • Abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain that usually forms before birth. This problem is called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.
  • Blood flow to part of the brain stops. This is called a stroke.
  • Weakening of the wall of a blood vessel that can break open and bleed into the brain. This is known as a brain aneurysm.
  • Bleeding in the brain. This is called an intracerebral hematoma.
  • Bleeding around the brain. This can be a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a subdural hematoma, or an epidural hematoma.

Other causes of headaches that should be checked by a health care provider right away include:

  • Acute hydrocephalus, which results from an interruption of cerebrospinal fluid flow.
  • Blood pressure that is very high.
  • Brain tumor.
  • Brain swelling (brain edema) from altitude sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning, or acute brain injury.
  • Buildup of pressure inside the skull that appears to be, but is not, a tumor (pseudotumor cerebri).  
  • Infection in the brain or the tissue that surrounds the brain, as well as a brain abscess.
  • Swollen, inflamed artery that supplies blood to part of the head, temple, and neck area (temporal arteritis).

 

When to Call the Doctor

 

If you cannot see your provider right away, go to the emergency room or call 911 if:

  • This is the first severe headache you have ever had in your life and it interferes with your daily activities.
  • You develop a headache right after activities such as weightlifting, aerobics, jogging, or sex.
  • Your headache comes on suddenly and is explosive or violent.
  • Your headache is "the worst ever," even if you regularly get headaches.
  • You also have slurred speech, a change in vision, problems moving your arms or legs, loss of balance, confusion, or memory loss with your headache.
  • Your headache gets worse over 24 hours.
  • You also have fever, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting with your headache.
  • Your headache occurs with a head injury.
  • Your headache is severe and just in one eye, with redness in that eye.
  • You just started getting headaches, especially if your are older than 50.
  • You have headaches along with vision problems and pain while chewing, or weight loss.
  • You have a history of cancer and develop a new headache.
  • Your immune system is weakened by disease (such as HIV infection) or by medicines (such as chemotherapy drugs and steroids).

See your provider soon if:

  • Your headaches wake you up from sleep.
  • A headache lasts more than a few days.
  • Headaches are worse in the morning.
  • You have a history of headaches but they have changed in pattern or intensity .
  • You have headaches often and there is no known cause.

 

 

References

Digre KB. Headaches and other head pain. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 398.

Garza I, Schwedt TJ, Robertson CE, Smith JH. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 103.

Kelly A-M. Neurology emergencies. In: Cameron P, Jelinek G, Kelly A-M, Brown A, Little M, eds. Textbook of Adult Emergency Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livinstone; 2015:Section 8.

Text only

 
  • Headache

    Headache - illustration

    Headaches are usually caused by either muscle tension, vascular problems, or both. Migraines are vascular in origin, and may be preceded by visual disturbances, loss of peripheral vision, and fatigue. Most headaches can be relieved or ameliorated by over-the-counter pain medications.

    Headache

    illustration

  • Tension-type headache

    Tension-type headache - illustration

    The most common cause of tension-type headaches is muscle contraction in the head, neck or shoulders.

    Tension-type headache

    illustration

  • CT scan of the brain

    CT scan of the brain - illustration

    A CT or CAT scan (computed tomography) is a much more sensitive imaging technique than X-ray, allowing high definition not only of the bony structures, but of the soft tissues. Clear images of organs such as the brain, muscles, joint structures, veins and arteries, as well as anomalies like tumors and hemorrhages may be obtained with or without the injection of contrasting dye.

    CT scan of the brain

    illustration

  • Migraine headache

    Migraine headache - illustration

    Symptoms of a migraine attack may include heightened sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, auras (loss of vision in one eye or tunnel vision), difficulty of speech and intense pain predominating on one side of the head.

    Migraine headache

    illustration

    • Headache

      Headache - illustration

      Headaches are usually caused by either muscle tension, vascular problems, or both. Migraines are vascular in origin, and may be preceded by visual disturbances, loss of peripheral vision, and fatigue. Most headaches can be relieved or ameliorated by over-the-counter pain medications.

      Headache

      illustration

    • Tension-type headache

      Tension-type headache - illustration

      The most common cause of tension-type headaches is muscle contraction in the head, neck or shoulders.

      Tension-type headache

      illustration

    • CT scan of the brain

      CT scan of the brain - illustration

      A CT or CAT scan (computed tomography) is a much more sensitive imaging technique than X-ray, allowing high definition not only of the bony structures, but of the soft tissues. Clear images of organs such as the brain, muscles, joint structures, veins and arteries, as well as anomalies like tumors and hemorrhages may be obtained with or without the injection of contrasting dye.

      CT scan of the brain

      illustration

    • Migraine headache

      Migraine headache - illustration

      Symptoms of a migraine attack may include heightened sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, auras (loss of vision in one eye or tunnel vision), difficulty of speech and intense pain predominating on one side of the head.

      Migraine headache

      illustration

    A Closer Look

     

      Talking to your MD

       

        Self Care

         

        Tests for Headaches - danger signs

         
           

          Review Date: 11/22/2017

          Reviewed By: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Surgery at Providence Medical Center, Medford OR; Department of Surgery at Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland OR; Department of Maxillofacial Surgery at UCSF, San Francisco CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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