Nearly everyone has a headache occasionally, but if they occur repeatedly and the pain is more severe, you may need to see your doctor.
“About 36 million Americans suffer from disabling headaches, or migraines,” said Dr. J. Ned Pruitt II, Professor and Vice Chair of Neurology at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. “Symptoms can be harsh, disrupting daily activities, requiring bed rest, and potentially lasting for days. But no one should go it alone.”
In recognition of National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, Pruitt recommends that you see a doctor if:
- Your headaches are incapacitating, or in other words, if headaches are bad enough to make you call in sick or miss out on fun outings with family or friends.
- Your disabling headaches are occurring more than three times a month.
- You are over 50 when you start having regular headaches, as they could be caused by inflammation in the arteries leading to the brain.
“Your primary doctor will assess your headaches, and may refer you to a neurologist if it is warranted,” Pruitt said.
Doctors will likely prescribe a class of medications known as triptans that specifically target migraines.
“But a very important part of treatment is identifying what triggers your migraine. By avoiding triggers, you can avoid headaches and eventually taper off medications,” Pruitt said.
Common migraine triggers include:
- Atmospheric changes (drops in barometric pressure). This type of migraine is often confused with a sinus headache.
- Certain foods, like yellow or ripened cheeses, preserved meats, red wine or chocolate
- Poor sleep habits and/or skipping meals (Common occurrences for young women in their childbearing years).
Pruitt also suggests keeping a journal to track when and under what conditions your migraines occur in order to help you and your doctor identify potential triggers.
“Many patients worry that their headache is the sign of a brain tumor, but brain tumors are very rare and most often severe recurrent headaches are undiagnosed migraines.”
In rare cases, your headache could be a symptom of a more serious illness. You should go to the emergency room if your headache is associated with:
- vision loss in one or both eyes
- sensation of spinning
- weakness on one side of the body
- slurred speech or clumsiness
“These could be signs of a stroke,” Pruitt said, “and you need to call 911 and seek treatment immediately if you suspect stroke, because time plays a huge role in stroke recovery.”
Another emergency would be if headaches start abruptly and become severe quickly (in less than 10 or 15 minutes), which could be a sign of bleeding in the brain.
While headaches are a pain, they don’t have to affect your quality of life. If you experience frequent, severe headaches that keep you from doing what you want to do, contact your doctor to find out how you can take back control of your life.