In this stress-filled world, it’s common to suffer from an occasional headache. Relief arrives quickly for most of us, often with the help of food, water, coffee, relaxation techniques, a short nap, or an OTC pain-killer if needed.
With that said, sometime you may find yourself with headaches that just don’t feel normal somehow. How do you decide if it’s something to worry about?
Before you go visit Dr. Google and get a lot of scary news, read what the experts say…
First, a bit of good news. . .
Dr. Mark Morocco1, a clinical professor and ER doc at University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center, offers his commonsense opinion. He says, generally speaking, you shouldn’t worry unless your headache status dramatically changes — for instance, if you never used to get headaches and now it’s a constant thing. Or if the intensity of your migraines has escalated.
Dr. Morocco says that even in those situations, it’s a fair bet your headache isn’t dangerous. “People are always worried about brain tumors,” the doctor says, but it just so happens that headaches are not among the top symptoms of brain tumors.
Now let’s unpack the top signs that your headache may signal a serious problem.
If you experience intense throbbing or pounding sensations, it may be a migraine. An estimated2 six percent of men and 18 percent of women suffer from this type of headache.
If you count yourself among this population, you know how painful and debilitating migraines can be. “Severe migraines can be described as intense throbbing or pounding sensations, with sensitivity to light or sound,” states Dr. Isha Gupta, a neurologist.
“Other types of severe headaches can be described as sharp stabbing pain in the face or around the eye. Some people have severe tension headache described as a band-like squeezing.”
If you feel these migraine-like symptoms, visit a healthcare provider who can help you manage the pain.
Sudden Thunderclap Headache
Typically, headaches creep up on you bit by bit, but if a severe headache comes on suddenly, take heed. If it’s dramatic like someone hitting you with a hammer, experts say it could be a subarachnoid hemorrhage or bleeding within your brain.
If this sharp pain doesn’t go away quickly, it’s imperative that you call 9-1-1.
Headache + Other Issues = Concern
The top duo to be concerned about is a bad headache accompanied by fever, as it could indicate an infection of the brain, such as meningitis or encephalitis. And if your severe headache is accompanied by a behavior change, that’s an excellent reason to visit the ER.
Head Trauma and Blood Thinners
Say you are unloading groceries from the car and you hit your head and develop a doozy of a headache. If you’re on blood thinners, there may be cause for concern. The head pain could be an indication of a subdural hematoma, or slow bleed inside your brain. Prescription blood thinners prevent blood clotting, and this can be deadly in the case of head trauma. Call 9-1-1.
Other Reasons to Worry
Harvard Medical School4 offers other warning signs, which include headaches that are accompanied by decreased alertness, memory loss, or neurological symptoms such as visual disturbances, slurred speech, weakness, numbness or seizures.
Fortunately, for most of us headaches are a once-in-a-while concern, often associated with stress. Chances are very good that your headache is not the harbinger of something life-threatening.
Both men and women can treat common headaches with simple lifestyle measures including relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or short naps. It’s wise to identify what triggers your headaches (skipping a meal, not sleeping well, hunching over a work computer with no breaks) — and avoid them.
You don’t want to use the popular over-the-counter drugs – ibuprofen and acetaminophen – if you can avoid them. That’s why it’s so much better to identify the root cause and eliminate it.