How To Know When A Headache Is Serious
What are primary headaches?
Common primary headaches include migraine, tension-type, and cluster and because these headaches are not being caused by any underlying problem, neurological examinations and imaging tests are usually completely normal in these disorders, no matter how severe the symptoms.
On the other hand secondary headaches are the ones that could mean a more serious health condition…
The key to distinguishing secondary headaches from primary headache lies in the features of the headache, other symptoms occurring at the same time, and the physical examination. Examining doctors look for warning signs that would point to a secondary headache over a primary headache.
Some of the warning signs of secondary headaches
- First or worst headache of your life
- Abrupt onset of headache without any warning or build-up
- Fundamental change in the pattern of recurrent headaches
- Headache beginning at unusual ages such as under 5 years or over 50 years
- The presence of conditions such as cancer, HIV or pregnancy
These different secondary headaches mean you should seek medical help for advice and treatment.
This can be very serious, often reaching its peak intensity within one minute or less and once present, the headache can last from an hour up to days. Known as the thunderclap headache because it hits you with a blast of severe pain like a clap of thunder, you can feel pain anywhere on your head or neck. You may even feel it in your back. Thunderclap can be caused by bleeding from an artery into the space surrounding your brain. But there are other causes too:
- Small tears in the arteries of your head or neck
- A burst artery or aneurysm, which is a swollen, weak area in the artery
- Blocked veins in your head
- Leaking spinal fluid
- Rapid changes in blood pressure
- An infection in your brain
There are even some activities that can trigger a thunderclap headache:
- Hard, physical labor
- Taking certain drugs, including illegal ones
- Hitting warm or hot water too fast, such as when you first enter a shower or a bath.
Seek prompt medical attention if you suffer from such a thunderclap headache.
Other secondary headaches
- External compression headaches (such as the result of wearing pressure-causing headgear).
- Ice cream headaches (commonly called brain freeze).
- Rebound headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication).
- Sinus headaches (caused by inflammation and congestion in the sinus cavities).
- Spinal headaches (caused by low levels of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of trauma, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia).
- Head injuries too can of course mean headaches. If such headaches continue, medical help is paramount because, left untreated, concussion can lead to long term damage to both physical and mental health.
- Headaches that appear on waking up first thing – in spite of a good night’s sleep. If these continue, they could be a sign of something more serious and should be checked out.
- Headaches that come on suddenly in a similar way to “thunderclap” headaches but often make you feel weak in the face, legs, or arms. If you find yourself feeling numb on one-half of your body, in addition to these other symptoms, it could be the first sign of a heart attack.
Headaches are never a pleasant experience (whatever type) but being confident that there is no secondary cause for headache is an important first step to developing an effective treatment plan for headaches and migraines alike.