When Should You Get Medical Treatment for a Headache?

Medical Treatment for a Headache

Most of us experience headaches at least occasionally. Mercifully, most of these headaches are mild, allowing us to go about our daily lives with only a bit of annoyance in the background. But headaches range in severity, frequency, duration, and other factors – and in some cases, headaches can be so severe that the sufferer is forced to go to an urgent care center.

But at what point, exactly, should you go to a medical treatment facility for a headache? And does this require emergency care?

What Is a Headache?

Let’s start by talking about what headaches are and what they aren’t. “Headache” is a general term that can refer to any noticeable pain in and around your head or face. These headaches can stem from a number of different root causes and may have no explainable root cause whatsoever. Signs and symptoms vary significantly between individuals, so headaches are hard to appropriately categorize and understand from a medical perspective.

There are actually many different types of headaches. These are some of the most notable:

Tension headaches

Tension headaches may be caused by excessive stress, muscle tension, or other factors. They’re typically associated with a dull, aching feeling around your head, and may come with sensitivity around your forehead, neck, and scalp.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches feel like a burning or piercing behind the eyes, usually limited to one side of the face. You may also experience swelling, redness, congestion, or tearing eyes on the affected side of your face.  

Migraines

Migraines are very intense, distinctive headaches that often come with sensitivity to light and sound, exhaustion, vomiting, and a sense of nausea. While experiencing a migraine, most people can’t focus on daily responsibilities, and migraines can last between a few hours and several days.

Hemicrania continua

A hemicrania continua headache is a persistent headache on one side of your face, which also comes with symptoms like eyelid drooping, restlessness, and light sensitivity.

Icepick/stabbing headaches

Icepick headaches are severe and are associated with a sharp, sudden, stabbing-like pain in the head. Thankfully, these headaches are typically rare and short-lived, only lasting a few seconds at a time.

Common Secondary Headaches

Sometimes, headaches are a secondary symptom of some other physical or health problem. For example:

Hormone changes

Some people experience headaches as a result of significant hormone changes, such as women experiencing pregnancy.

Allergies

Many people who suffer from seasonal allergies complain of headaches as a secondary effect of their allergy symptoms.

Stress

Excessive stress or hardship can also trigger the onset of different types of headaches.

Caffeine

Caffeine can cause headaches in some people – especially people sensitive to this substance. If you’re addicted to caffeine, a lack of caffeine can also cause headaches.

Dehydration

Sometimes, a headache is little more than a sign of mild dehydration, meaning you should drink some water.

Exertion.

You may also experience a headache as a result of physical tiredness or general fatigue.

When to Get Medical Treatment

So when should you seek medical treatment?

Most headaches are mild and go away on their own. If you’re struggling with mild to moderate discomfort, you should drink some water, take some OTC painkillers, get some extra sleep, and wait for the headache to disappear.

However, you should also be mindful of the following:

Root cause.

First, try to figure out the root cause of your headache. If your headache is due to lack of morning coffee, excessive tiredness, or allergies, you probably have nothing to worry about. If you have extreme headaches with no root cause, a medical examination is a good idea. And if your headache is a result of some other injury or ailment, like a traumatic brain injury (TBI), you should definitely see a doctor.

Severity.

You should also consider the intensity of your headaches. Normal headaches are annoying, bordering on painful, but they don’t stop you from living a normal life. Severe headaches can be excruciating and crippling, preventing you from being able to focus on work, conversations, or your relationships.

Duration.

Most headaches go away in less than 24 hours, especially if you get a good night’s sleep. If your headache persists for days, you need medical attention. This is especially true if you’ve already tried the primary home treatment options, like extra water and OTC painkillers.

Frequency.

Frequent headaches could be innocuous – but they could also be a troubling sign of other health issues. If you have headaches every day, or if you otherwise experience headaches with such frequency that they interfere with your ability to live a fulfilling life, you should talk to a medical professional about what you’re experiencing.

Other troubling symptoms.

If you’re experiencing other symptoms in addition to your headache, such as shortness of breath, a stiff neck, vomiting, weakness, slurred speech, paralysis, or confusion, it’s important to get medical treatment. These could be a sign of something more serious happening to you.

If you notice that your headaches are abnormal in some way, either because they’re too intense or because they occur too frequently with no explainable root cause, it’s important to see your doctor. And if your headache is a result of a traumatic injury, or if the headache is extreme, your best course of action is to go to a hospital or urgent care center.

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