The show your kid won’t stop watching, the smell of your coworker’s perfume, the cold you’ve been nursing for a few days — these are all triggers for the occasional headache. Fortunately, they typically go away after a good night’s sleep and some over-the-counter medication.
But what happens when your headaches go beyond the norm?
Here, Dr. David Wu, our interventional pain management specialist at CurePain, walks through the warning signs that your headaches are more than an inconvenience.
Getting to know your headaches
The first step in determining whether or not you need a doctor’s help with your headaches is figuring out which type of headache you have. You might think that they all hurt the same, but the location, severity, and cause can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside your head.
There are three main types of headaches: primary, secondary, and migraines. Here’s a closer look at each.
This type of headache stems from a problem with your head’s pain-sensitive structures, including the nerves and blood vessels surrounding your skull, the chemical activity in your brain, as well as the muscles in your head.
There are over 150 different types of headaches, but some of the most common primary headaches are tension headaches brought on by muscle contractions and cluster headaches, which are severe headaches that appear several times a day during a “cluster period.”
Where primary headaches begin and end in the head, secondary headaches are the side effect of an illness or underlying health problem. Secondary headaches are often associated with conditions such as facet syndrome, which impacts your cervical spine. They tend to start in your neck and spread to your head.
Though migraines are technically classified as a primary headache, we’re giving them their own category because they come with their own set of unique symptoms and triggers. Migraine pain is typically moderate to severe and is often described as a pounding, throbbing pain.
Many people with migraines also notice other symptoms, such as sensitivity to light, sound, and odors. Others struggle with bouts of nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain during a migraine attack. Most are unable to keep up their daily routine during an attack.
One-third of migraine sufferers experience what’s called migraine aura — a set of visual disturbances, including flashing lights and blind spots before their headache symptoms start.
It’s not exactly understood what causes migraines, but most believe that genetics, nervous system conditions, and gender play a role. Environmental triggers can also exacerbate or bring about migraine attacks. Some of the most common are:
- Sleep disruption
- Skipping meals
- Eating certain foods
- Fluctuations in hormones
- Exposure to chemicals or toxins
Whatever’s causing your headache, it’s important to recognize the warning signs that they won’t get better on their own or that there’s a more serious problem behind them.
Warning signs your headaches need medical attention
Headaches are so common that it’s easy to feel as though seeing a doctor is a waste of time. For the occasional headache, you might be right. But if you’re noticing these signs and symptoms, it’s time to schedule an appointment.
- You have more than the occasional headache
- Your headaches are severe
- Your headaches come on quickly
- Your headache persists, gets worse, or won’t stop
- Your headaches disrupt daily life
- Your headaches follow a head injury or trauma
- Your headache symptoms suddenly change
- You’re taking pain medication more than two days a week
- Pain medication doesn’t work
- Sneezing, bending over, coughing, and exercising exacerbate your symptoms
It’s especially important that you seek immediate medical attention if your headaches are accompanied by other symptoms, including the following:
- Loss of vision
- Persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Slurred speech
- Stiffness in your neck
- Unexpected symptoms in your ears, nose, throat, or eyes
Many of these secondary symptoms mimic those associated with stroke, which requires prompt medical treatment.
How we can help
Dr. Wu takes chronic and severe headaches seriously and offers a wide range of minimally and noninvasive treatments for chronic headaches.
He begins by conducting a thorough review of your health history and completing a comprehensive neurological assessment before recommending treatment. Because most headaches are caused by a problem with the pain-sensitive structures in your face, head, and neck, we often recommend oral or injected medications that block pain, reduce inflammation, and effectively relieve your symptoms.
For more severe headaches, such as migraines, we may suggest a course of pain medications you can take during a migraine attack or medication you can take to prevent or reduce the number and severity of your headaches.
If you’d like more information about your headaches, or if you’re worried that they may be a sign of a more serious problem, don’t hesitate to call our Torrance, California, office at 424-235-6565 or schedule an appointment with our online booking tool.