man wondering if he may have a dangerous headache

HEAL

Seven signs of a dangerous headache

  • Headaches affect almost half of us in the course of a year.
  • The good news is that 90 percent of headaches are "benign." That means they aren't harmful or dangerous to you.
  • The bad news is that 10 percent of headaches are a sign of a serious condition which requires an emergency evaluation.

There’s a good chance that sometime during the year you’ll have a headache. Headaches happen to almost half of us in any given year. The good news is most headaches are not harmful or dangerous. But, about 10 percent of headaches are a sign of a serious health condition and require an emergency evaluation. So, how can you tell the difference between an ordinary headache and one that's dangerous? It's not easy.

Causes of serious headaches

Almost all types of headaches activate the same kind of pain receptors. That can make it difficult for you to know whether your headache pain is a sign of a serious condition or not. The most serious causes of headache pain include:

  • hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel in your brain breaks and bleeds.
  • aneurysm. A bulge or ballooning blood vessel in the brain.
  • meningitis. A bacterial or viral infection that causes swelling in the protective lining of your brain.
  • brain tumor. A “primary” brain tumor begins in the brain and can be cancerous or noncancerous.

When to seek emergency care for a headache

If you develop a headache with no history of a similar headache, here are seven signs that it could be dangerous and require an emergency evaluation:

  • It comes on suddenly (less than five minutes to maximum pain).
  • It is the worst headache of your life.
  • You take a blood thinner.
  • You have problems with your immune system, such as diabetes or HIV, or being treated with steroids or chemotherapy.
  • You have arm or leg numbness or weakness, slurred speech, seizures or other neurological symptoms.
  • You have pain in the back of your head or pain that travels down your neck.
  • You are older than 50.

Need emergency care? Find an emergency room near you and check wait times.

We often can rule out serious conditions without extensive tests. A CT scan or spinal tap may be necessary depending on your symptoms and medical history.

If you have any cause for concern about a headache, it is best to get evaluated.

 

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