It’s estimated that 46% of global population suffer from headache disorder at some point during their lifetime. And while mild headaches a few times a month are usually not dangerous, they can substantially impact the quality of life. Worse yet, if headaches are changing in character, increasing in severity or frequency, or if you notice any of the alarming symptoms described below, it’s necessary to see your doctor to rule out a serious underlying cause.
- A thunderclap headache. When a severe headache comes on suddenly, as if someone has hit you with a hammer, it must be taken seriously. It can be due to bleeding within the brain caused by leaking aneurism. Such pain won’t go away quickly and recede within minutes. So, don’t make a mistake of taking strong analgesics and going to sleep. Call an ambulance instead.
- A headache accompanied with eye pain. If the ache is behind or around your eyes, especially if you have changes in vision, it is an emergency. It can be a buildup of pressure in the eye that hinders blood circulation to the eyes and can result in blindness. Very often such symptoms manifest when a person goes to a movie and when the lights go down and the pupil of the eye dilates, that change in pressure causes headache.
- Pain concentrated in the temples. If you feel your headache tightly concentrated in one or both of your temples, it can be a sign of temporal arteritis. The condition is caused by inflammation or damage to the arteries that supply blood to the head and brain. It is a case of emergency, especially if you develop blurry vision or fever which can result in vision loss if not treated immediately.
- If your headache is coupled with fever and a stiff neck. A severe headache accompanied with fever, neck stiffness or an altered mental state, such as not being able to remember your children or acting unlike yourself, that’s an emergency. It can indicate meningitis – a bacterial infection in the brain causing life-threatening inflammation of the membranes enveloping the brain and the spinal cord. It can also be a warning sign of encephalitis. Although these illnesses are thankfully rare, they need to be treated promptly.
- Your pain is throbbing. Recurrent headaches with severe throbbing pain and a pulsing sensation, typically on one side of the head can indicate migraine. Migraines are commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to sound and light. Although you may think that something is terribly wrong with you when you feel it coming on for the first time, migraines can be successfully managed with medications and therapy.
- Pain which intensifies on movement. Headaches that worsen with sitting up or lying down can indicate serious health problems, such as cerebrospinal fluid leak. Pain in the neck or back of the head can also be due to inflammation of the blood vessels in the head or osteoid tissue changes in the structure of the neck.
- Your headache is contagious. If people surrounding you complain about their headache coincidently with you, it can be a sign of poisoning. When opening windows and stepping outside slightly relieves your headache, warn everyone else and have the space inspected for carbon monoxide leakage.
- Headache associated with neurologic symptoms. While people always worry about brain tumors, headaches are usually not among the priority symptoms. Nevertheless, if your headache is accompanied with any neurologic symptom, such as change in speech, coordination or strength, it may indicate a brain tumor.
- Change of pre-existing headaches. If your headache becomes different or more severe than you used to have, especially if you are over 50 or when your painkillers suddenly stop working, it’s time to see your physician.