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More Than Just a Headache?

Headaches: nuisance or cause for concern?

If you’re like most people, you get the occasional headache brought on by stress, eye strain — even caffeine withdrawal.

But some people have extremely painful or frequent headaches, such as migraines, that interfere with daily life. These headaches can be worrisome because sometimes headaches are a symptom of more serious medical problems, including stroke, brain tumors or an infectious disease, such as meningitis.

More than just a headache

“The location and quality of pain can be clues to the type of headache you are experiencing and can help to indicate whether you should seek medical attention,” says Madhu Soni, MD, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center.

According to Soni, see your doctor if you experience changes in your headaches, such as the location or type of pain, changes in accompanying symptoms, or any of the following:

  • Headaches starting at or after the age of 50
  • Severe headaches that rate a 6 or above on a pain scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (the worst pain you’ve ever felt)
  • Prolonged, persistent or worsening headaches
  • Frequent headaches (daily or several times a week)
  • Headaches accompanied by nausea or intolerance to light
  • Recurring headaches following a head injury or physical trauma
  • Headaches that interfere with your ability to function

Go to the emergency room immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • The worst headache you’ve ever had
  • A severe migraine lasting more than three days
  • A headache accompanied by fever, stiff neck, vomiting, loss of consciousness or any neurologic symptoms: dizziness, weakness, confusion, numbness, slurred speech or vision changes
  • Headaches that come on suddenly, without warning

Fortunately, less than one percent of all headaches indicate a life-threatening problem. But if you find yourself taking pain medication more than twice a week or canceling plans because of headaches, don’t ignore them. Your doctor can help you get relief and, just as important, give you peace of mind.


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