Preparing for a Doctor's Visit for Your Headache

What You Should Tell Your Doctor

Side view of young woman sitting on sofa with hand touching head
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When you see your doctor for a  headache evaluation, it can be extremely helpful if you are able to relay your symptoms in an orderly and logical format.

Here are some questions you can expect your doctor to ask you. Writing down or simply thinking about your answers ahead of time can ensure your doctor has all the information he needs to make a proper diagnosis. 

What Does Your Pain Feel Like?

Use your own words to describe your headache pain.

For example, is it sharp, stabbing, dull, achy, prickly, or burning? Use whatever words come to mind, as there is no right or wrong answer here. 

It's also a good idea to rate your pain for your physician. On a pain scale, "1" is considered very mild pain and "10" is the worse pain you’ve ever had in your life—of course, if you are having the worst headache of your life, you should seek emergent medical attention.

When Did the Pain Start?

Consider what you were you doing at the time the headache began. Try to jot down what you had to eat that day, what your sleep schedule was like, or whether there was a stressful situation occurring.

If your headaches are stopping and starting, keep a more detailed diary of your daily routine and include any medications you used to treat your headache (including dosages). This meticulous recording can be extremely helpful—in fact, sometimes a headache trigger pops up in your diary entries that you least expected.

 

Where is Your Headache Located?

The location of your headache can help a doctor pinpoint your diagnosis, although usually more information is needed to put the whole picture together.

Some headaches occur on one side of the head (migraines tend to do this, but not always) and others involve the entire head, like a tension headache.

Another primary headache disorder that is rarer than migraines or tension-type headaches are cluster headaches—these headaches often cause extreme pain around one eye and/or temple. 

What Seems to Help the Pain? What Makes it Worse?

It may surprise you to hear that what helps or worsens your headache can help your doctor clinch the diagnosis. For example, migraines often get better with sleep, especially in a dark, quiet room and often worsen with loud noises, bright light, and physical activity.

Both migraines and tension-type headaches often improve with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (although moderate to severe migraines may not). 

Does the Pain Travel Anywhere Else?

Healthcare professionals like to know if your pain “travels.” Some headaches start in the neck and seem to reach all the way to the forehead. In some instances, you may feel like your headache starts on the right side but then begins to affect the left side of your head, as well. A cluster headache may start behind the eye but then send sharp pain elsewhere in the head.

What Other Symptoms Do You Get with Your Headache?

Besides your headache, it is important to articulate what else you are feeling. For example, nausea is common in people with migraines, but it can also occur in people with tension-type headaches, although it tends to be more severe in a migraine and may be associated with vomiting. People with migraines also tend to be way more wiped out (for example, not able to work) whereas a person with a tension-type headache can generally get on with his day. ​

 You should also tell your doctor if you develop an aura before experiencing a headache. An aura commonly affects your vision and may be flashing lights or a blind spot.

Other symptoms associated with headaches (and there are a lot—again, tell the doctor how you feel, not what you see on a list) include:

  • emotional changes or food cravings prior to a headache
  • colds hands or feet
  • diarrhea
  • yawning
  • body aches
  • difficulty thinking

Warning Signs to Seek Medical Attention Right Away

Some severe medical issues, such as meningitis and stroke, can cause headaches. If you experience headache warning signs (for example, an abrupt, severe headache or a headache with a fever or neurological symptoms), please seek emergent medical attention. 

A Word From Verywell

It's helpful to come to your doctor prepared. Sometimes jotting down notes is a good idea so you don't forget anything. Just be honest and don't hold back. Remain relaxed and share your story.

Source:

Hainer BL, Matheson EM. Approach to acute headache in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2013 May 15;87(10):682-87.

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