Plagued by a headache or series of headaches? Most headaches aren't serious, but it's natural to worry about headache causes. Asking yourself the following questions can help you assess this common symptom and give you insights into the information a doctor will want to know in order to figure out the cause.
Headache pain question #1: What does the headache feel like?
It can be hard to describe pain. One rare headache experience worth knowing about: A sudden and severe "thunderclap" headache -- doctors call it "the worst headache of your life" -- is a warning sign of a cerebral aneurysm, or ruptured blood vessel in the brain, which can be life threatening and warrants immediate medical attention. These headaches don't build gradually or come and go; they leap out of nowhere, says Michael Sellman, chief of neurology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Most headaches, however, develop gradually. A doctor may ask you to describe the nature of the pain -- is it sharp and intense or a milder, dull ache? Is the pain a constant squeezing (which is consistent with a pinched nerve) or throbbing (which is typical of migraine pain)?
See if you can determine the location of the headache, too: Is it an all-over tension headache (caused by the tightening of muscles all over the scalp)? Is it a dull throbbing behind the eyeballs or temples? Is it on one side of the head (such as isolated to one sinus cavity) or everywhere?
Headache pain question #2: Are headaches new for you?
It's especially concerning if you develop headaches after never having been plagued by them. If you can't think of a logical reason (such as dehydration or sleeplessness), or if the headaches are severe, increasingly frequent, or disabling, it's better to have them checked than to suffer silently.
"Odds are, it'll turn out to be nothing serious -- but you never know," says Deborah Friedman, professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Headache pain question #3: Is it different from past headaches you've had?
Another rule of thumb: Pay attention to what's different for you. Migraine sufferers often have routine headaches, but they tend to follow a familiar pattern in terms of how they develop and unfold. Others may occasionally have tension headaches or headaches around ovulation that feel a particular way each time. Any change in what's typical for you, however, is a red flag, doctors say.
Headache pain question #4: What other symptoms do you notice?
Does the headache waken you from sound sleep? Are you also losing weight? Do you have aches and pains?
Pay attention to overall physical symptoms, such as weight loss, nausea, pain elsewhere in the body. Also note neurological changes, says neurologist Deborah Friedman. These include weakness, double vision or other visual disturbances, numbness, trouble speaking, or altered consciousness.
Migraine sufferers often have related neurological symptoms in a pattern unique to each individual. But if symptoms are new to you, and especially if you're over 50, they may be signs of anything from bleeding in the brain or an inflammatory problem to a brain tumor.
What a 48-Hour Headache Might Mean
If a headache lasts for more than two days and you can't think of a probable logical cause that doesn't seem serious (such as a hangover or stress), it may be worth consulting a doctor -- especially if the headache is new for you, says Mercy Medical Center's Michael Sellman.
Headache pain question #6: What else has happened recently?
A persistent or severe headache after a fall, a bump to the head, or a change in medication (including a new prescription or over-the-counter drug) should also be reported to a doctor.