When is a Headache the Sign of Something More?

Sep. 10, 2018

Whether it’s tension, clusters, migraines or sinus allergies, headaches can tell you a lot about your symptoms.

When is a headache more than a headache?

Headaches are one of the most common symptoms people experience, with some reports suggesting that 80-90% of the population experience headaches at some point in their lives. But when is a headache a sign of something serious?

“Fortunately, most headaches are benign in that they do not suggest the presence of a potentially life-threatening problem,” says Charles J. Prestigiacomo, MD, UC Health neurosurgeon at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and West Chester Hospital, and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Some characteristics of the headache, however, may suggest a more serious underlying problem:

Do You Notice Something Different?

A headache whose qualities are suddenly different than prior headaches might suggest a new problem may be arising. This is not necessarily suggesting a life-threatening problem, but if the headache has different qualities (such as throbbing versus sharp, knife-like or burning), it might be worth discussing with your doctor.

How Much Does Your Headache?

A headache of sudden onset that is sharp in quality (like a “knife stabbing” or a “lightning bolt”) that is described as “the worst headache of my life” needs to be immediately evaluated. These headaches may be associated with the bleeding of an aneurysm. This is a medical emergency and the individual should be taken to the nearest hospital.

Do You Have Other Symptoms?

A headache that awakens someone from sleep with nausea and vomiting or early morning headaches with nausea and vomiting may be a result of a tumor of the brain or surrounding structures that require physician evaluation. Dr. Prestigiacomo emphasizes that the above symptoms are not a definitive diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening problem. However, if they occur, it is important that the individual seeks formal evaluation to ensure that no underlying problem exists.

The neurosurgery team at West Chester Hospital is composed of four physician specialists. “In our practice, it’s not one person who makes the ultimate decision for a patient,” says Dr. Prestigiacomo. “It’s a blend of experts who make the best decision, together. The team of specialists perform a comprehensive review of the condition and provide a detailed plan of care.”