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Woman suffering from vertigo or dizziness or other health problem of brain or inner ear.

Signs Your Headache Needs Medical Attention

Headaches can put a stop to your day. The pain can range from annoying to downright debilitating. Many people suffer from headaches and there are many different types. 

Types of Headaches

  • Tension headaches are common and can feel like an aching or a band squeezing your head and neck.
  • Migraines can be quite intense, and can involve light and sound sensitivity and typically affect one side of the head.
  • Cluster headaches can also be quite severe because they can happen as a series of headaches with the focal point behind one eye at a time.
  • There’s also allergy, sinus and exertional headaches which occur when you’re exercising. 

When to Seek Help for Your Headache

For addressing the pain, or reducing the frequency, of headaches, over-the-counter medications often provide relief, but not always. Here how to know when to seek medical attention.

Over-the-counter pain relievers aren’t helping.

Just as there’s more than one type of headache, there are a variety of approaches and even prescription medications that can help, particularly for migraine and cluster headaches. Sometimes lifestyle habits can make a big difference. 

Headaches become more frequent or severe for no identifiable reason.

Several factors can trigger everyday headaches, including stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, caffeine, dehydration and even poor posture. Sometimes a headache can be a sign of an underlying health issue, such high blood pressure or a vitamin deficiency. These are called secondary headaches because, unlike primary headaches (such as migraine and cluster varieties), they are a symptom that something else needs to be addressed.

Pain interferes with work, activities or sleep.

For some people, headaches become debilitating and affect your quality of life. If headaches go beyond being a nuisance and disrupt more than a few hours of your day, it may be time to seek medical guidance to diagnose, manage and treat your headaches.

You want help managing the pain.

Headaches can be an ongoing struggle for many. If the strategies you’re using stop working, or don’t work well enough, it may be time to see your provider. Sometimes we can suggest lifestyle modifications that can help, and there may be new medications and treatments you haven’t yet tried.

Seek Medical Care Immediately for These Symptoms

Sometimes headaches can be a sign of something more serious or even a medical emergency. Seek medical attention immediately if the headache:

  1. Feels like the worst headache of your life.
  2. Comes on suddenly and quickly becomes severe.
  3. Lasts more than 72 hours with fewer than 4 hours pain-free.
  4. Is accompanied by:
    1. Stiff neck and/or fever
    2. Uncontrollable vomiting
    3. Seizure, fainting, confusion, personality changes
    4. Weakness, numbness, vision changes
  5. Begins after an injury, particularly a head injury.
  6. Is a new type of headache after age 55.

Because headaches are common, people can dismiss them as part of everyday life. If you’re concerned or want help to feel better, see your primary care provider for diagnosis, treatment and possibly a referral to a specialist. 

Melinda Booth, APRN, IBCLC
Melinda Booth, APRN, IBCLC

Melinda Booth, APRN, IBCLC is a Family Medicine Nurse Practitioner and a Certified Lactation Consultant with CHI Health.

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