Preparing for Your Headache Evaluation

What You Should Tell Your Doctor

Side view of young woman sitting on sofa with hand touching head
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In order for your physician to properly diagnose your headache and prescribe an adequate treatment, it's helpful to relay symptoms in an orderly and logical format.

You can follow this format to organize your thoughts and share them with your physician:

What Does Your Pain Feel Like?

Medical professionals often describe head pain as either “sharp and stabbing” or “dull and achy.” Burning pain can also occur in some cases.

Occasionally, you may feel as though you are having a “pins and needles” type of sensation.

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 — if this is the case your should seek medical attention right away.

When Did the Pain Start?

What were you doing at the time the headache began? Do you remember eating anything in particular before experiencing pain? Stress, lack of sleep, changes in the environment, and a variety of foods are some of the triggers for headaches.

Where is Your Headache Located?

Some headaches occur on one side of the head —like a migraine — and others involve the entire head, like a tension headache. Cluster headaches in particular often hurt behind one eye. You may also feel like your headache begins at the base of the skull where the head and neck meet, as in a cervicogenic headache.

How Long Does Your Headache Last?

Headaches of all types can last anywhere from a few short minutes to a day or more. Some headaches come and go throughout the day. In any case, headaches that last longer than 24 hours should be reported to your physician to rule out a serious cause.

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

Migraines sometimes get better with rest, especially in a dark, quiet room.

If you take medications for your headaches, are these helping? Describe any activities that seem to make your pain worse or better. Loud noises and bright light or excessive heat may make your headache worse. Be sure to tell your doctor these things.

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?

Nausea is quite common with a lot of headaches. Some migraines cause a variety of symptoms including vision problems, diarrhea, and cold hands and feet. 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.

Some people report emotional changes or food cravings prior to a headache. All of these symptoms can help your doctor properly assess your headaches.

Warning Signs

Some severe medical issues, such as meningitis and stroke, can cause headaches. If you experience any of the following symptoms, be sure to call your physician immediately:

  • An abrupt, severe headache
  • A headache with fever, stiff neck, seizures, difficulty speaking, rash, weakness, or double vision
  • Headaches following a head injury
  • Any time headaches begin for the first time after the age of 50

What Should I Do?

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. Share your worries.

Sources:

Millea, Paul J., M.D. and Jonathan J. Brodie, M.D. “Tension-Type Headache.” Am Fam Physician. 2002;66:797-804,805.

NINDS Headache Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved September 2, 2008. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/headache/headache.htm

Parmet, Sharon, Cassio Lynm, and Richard M. Glass. ”Headache.” JAMA. 2006;295(19):2320. Retrieved September 2, 2008.

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