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see a doctor for headaches

When to See a Doctor for a Headache

If your frequent headaches affect your life, it’s time to seek medical advice.

Almost everyone has suffered a headache at some point in their lives. The experience can range from “it went away on its own” to “my head throbbed for 72 hours.” But when is it time to see a doctor for your headaches?

One way to start understanding your head pain is to learn about the different types of headaches.

Headaches 101

The pain you feel during a headache can be on one side of your head or on both sides at once. It can be a throbbing pain in your forehead or feel like your head is caught in a vice. Let’s examine the different types of headaches.

A tension headache is a very common type of headache; it’s estimated that up to 80 percent of adults experience them on an occasional basis. The pain is usually described as a constant band-like pain around the forehead or back of the head and neck. Other symptoms include tenderness around the scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles.

A migraine headache is a painful and sometimes reoccurring headache that appears quickly, often with severe pain in the temple area on one side of the head, which may extend to the face, sinuses, jaw, and neck. Migraines can last from an hour to 72 hours. Commonly, nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light and/or sound can accompany a migraine headache. If you are experiencing this type of headache, you should see a doctor for a migraine diagnosis and treatment options.

A sinus headache is caused by an inflammation of your sinus cavities, often resulting from a cold or allergies. Sinus headaches can cause pain and pressure around the nose, eyes, forehead, and cheeks. People often confuse sinus headaches with migraines because the signs and symptoms can be similar.



When to See a Doctor for Headaches

Now that you know a little about the different types of headaches, when should you see a doctor about them? Dr. Jessica Ailani, a neurologist specializing in headaches, suggests that if you experience headaches consistently once a week or more, you should seek the advice of a neurologist. Developing a treatment plan to reduce the frequency and severity of headaches is important, because four or more headaches per week are a risk factor for chronic migraine.

According to Dr. Keri Peterson, an internist in New York City: “If you are taking OTC medications for headache and they do not work, do not self-diagnose your headaches as being migraines — see your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and to rule out anything more serious.”

Also consider seeing your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Headaches are more frequent or more severe than usual
  • Headaches that worsen or don’t improve with the proper use of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs
  • You can’t perform normal activities, such as working or sleeping
  • Headaches are caused by coughing, exercise, or sexual activity

If your headaches cause you distress, consider seeing your doctor to find a treatment option that works for you.

When to seek emergency care: It’s up to you to decide whether your headache needs emergency medical attention. But know the warning signs that could indicate a serious condition: confusion or trouble understanding speech, loss of vision or speech, high fever, fainting, uncontrollable vomiting.


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