What to Do About a Migraine Emergency

Urgent Care? Or Hospital ER.?

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A severe migraine headache that lasts for three or more days can be a medical emergency—sometimes even increasing the risk of a migraine-induced stroke. What should you do if you find yourself dealing with a relentless migraine and you can't get to your regular doctor—you're on vacation, for example, or it's a holiday weekend? In that case, your choices basically boil down to heading for either a nearby emergency room or a local urgent care facility.

Either way you won't be alone. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that about 7 percent of Americans who have migraines use the emergency room or urgent care to treat their severe headaches each year. And even though headaches account for just a little over 2 percent of emergency room visits, that amounts to more than 2 million visits each year. What's more, there are many people who have migraines serious enough to send them for emergency care more than once over a period of months.

Comparing the ER to Urgent Care

Because so many people seek emergency care for migraine headaches, the National Headache Foundation did a survey to get a sense of how people's experiences in the ER and urgent care differed. The results of that study may help you decide which way to go if you have a migraine emergency yourself.

  • Urgent care was faster. Two-thirds of people responding to the survey waited for less than an hour at the urgent care center, while only a third had such a short wait time in the emergency room.
  • Doctors and nurses at urgent care were nicer. About two-thirds reported that the medical staff members at urgent care centers were polite and respectful to them. Only 54 percent said the same of ER doctors and staff. 
  • Urgent care physicians explain things better. Some 58 percent said they got a clear explanation of their diagnosis at the urgent care center, compared to 38 percent in the emergency room. Urgent care physicians also gave clearer instructions on what to do if the headache or migraine returned, and were more likely to offer a home care plan.
  • Treatment at urgent care centers was more effective. About 53 percent said the treatment they received in urgent care was effective. Only about 36 percent felt they got effective treatment. 
  • Urgent care centers were more likely to offer a quiet spot. More than three-quarters of those who visited urgent care got a quiet area to stay in, compared with 60 percent who went to an emergency room.

Overall, half of the people in the survey described their urgent care experience as "good" or "very good," while just a bit more than a third had the same to say about the ER experience. Ultimately, you may not have much choice, depending on how serious your pain is and how far you have to travel for each option, but based on the findings of this survey, the nearest urgent care may have you feeling better faster, and with less hassle. 

Sources:

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Acute Migraine Treatment in Emergency Settings." Nov. 27, 2012. 

National Headache Foundation. "Emergency Room or Urgent Care Center: A Headache Sufferer's Dilemma." Press release dated July 5, 2006.

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