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When to See a Doctor for a Headache

March 22, 2022 - Katie McCallum

Headaches happen.

For some people, unfortunately, they happen a lot.

But when are frequent headaches the result of a behavior you can identify and correct on your own and when do they warrant a doctor's attention?

"It's important to know when to see a doctor about headaches because they're not always just a nuisance that disrupts an hour or two of your day and then goes away," says Dr. Doha Ayish, a neurologist at Houston Methodist. "In some cases, headaches can be chronic, debilitating and affect your quality of life, and they can also be a sign of an underlying health issue that needs attention."

What causes headaches?

According to Dr. Ayish, we don't have a complete understanding of why headaches happen exactly.

"We know headaches are the result of interactions between the nerves, blood vessels and muscles in and around your head or neck and that these interactions cause the nerves to signal pain, but the exact mechanism for this is unknown," explains Dr. Ayish.

While the underlying reason behind them might be somewhat murky, we know that several factors can trigger the everyday headache, including:

"A headache can often be traced back to one of these triggers, but not always," says Dr. Ayish. "Additionally, while headaches aren't typically a huge concern, they can sometimes be a sign of an underlying health issue. This is why it's important to talk to your doctor if you're getting headaches."

5 signs it's time to see a doctor about your headaches

Here's when you should see a doctor about your headaches:

1. Your headaches don't improve despite taking over-the-counter pain relievers

Perhaps you already know that there's more than one type of headache, but did you know that the various types are best relieved in different ways?

"Medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help relieve a tension headache but are less likely to help with a migraine headache or cluster headache," says Dr. Ayish. "Your doctor can help pinpoint which type of headache you're likely experiencing and advise you on how best to alleviate or even prevent them."

2. Your headaches are affecting your sleep, activity level or work

If your headaches are disturbing every corner of your life, it's time to do something about them.

"Stress and lack of sleep can lead to headaches, and then headaches can cause poor sleep and stress — creating a cycle that leads to frequent headaches that continue to disrupt your day-to-day life," says Dr. Ayish.

You can't always remove the stressors causing your headaches, but your doctor can recommend stress-relieving activities that can help break the cycle, including deep breathing techniques and other healthy habits that can improve your mood. (Related: Brain Chemistry & Your Mood: 4 Hormones That Promote Happiness)

3. You're getting frequent headaches and can't identify a trigger

Sometimes you're able to identify a specific behavior that's triggering your headaches, like not drinking enough water.

But not all headache triggers are that noticeable, and your doctor can help identify the more subtle causes of headaches.

"While tension headaches, migraine headaches and cluster headaches are considered primary headaches, a secondary headache is when the headache is actually a symptom of an underlying health issue," explains Dr. Ayish. "For instance, certain vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin D deficiency, can lead to headaches, and it takes doing blood work to uncover such a deficiency."

4. Your headaches are occurring more often or becoming more severe

Another reason it's important to see a doctor about headache issues that are only getting worse is the possibility they're a sign of something more serious.

"From high blood pressure to life-threatening disease, there are several health conditions that can manifest with a headache," warns Dr. Ayish. "Always consult your doctor if you're experiencing frequent headaches or ones that are severe."

5. You need help managing your headaches

Pain relievers and home remedies for headaches, like drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep, aren't always enough.

"With migraine headaches, in particular, consulting a neurologist is the first step in determining whether you might benefit from a prescription migraine medication," says Dr. Ayish. "It's also possible to trigger headaches through long-term use of headache medications, which is called a rebound headache. A neurologist can help you understand which medications you should and shouldn't be taking."

Cluster headaches also typically require the expertise and management of a neurologist.

In some cases, a headache may even be a medical emergency

Seek immediate medical attention if a headache:

  • Comes on suddenly and very quickly becomes severe
  • Feels like the worst headache in your life
  • Is accompanied by a stiff neck and/or fever
  • Is accompanied by a seizure, fainting, confusion or changes in personality
  • Begins right after an injury, particularly a head injury
  • Is accompanied by weakness, numbness or vision changes


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