16 Signs Your Headache Could Be Something Way Worse

Nearly everyone gets headaches—from dehydration, allergies or just because you're overworked and overtired. Most are nothing to be worried about, except when they are. Here, doctors give the scoop on your head pain: What it means and how to know if you need medical attention.

There's no one-size-fits-all headache

01-one-size-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headaches-426865246-StokketeStokkete/shutterstockAccording to Brian Grosberg, MD, director of the Hartford HealthCare Headache Center, there are over 300 different types and causes of headaches. "Taking a thorough headache history helps determine if there are 'red flags' or worrisome features that may be indicative that the headache is attributable to some underlying condition or cause," he says. Find out the foods that are the most likely to trigger a headache.

Your head is throbbing

headacheNikodash/ShutterstockIt's estimated that around six percent of men and 18 percent of women suffer from migraines. If you happen to fall into that group, you know how painful and debilitating they can be. Though the first time you feel it coming on, you might worry something is terribly wrong, migraine sufferers become experts at the warning signs. Neurologist Isha Gupta, MD, explains, "Severe migraines can be described as intense throbbing or pounding sensations, with sensitivity to light or sound. Other types of severe headaches can be described as sharp stabbing pain in the face or around the eye. Some people have severe tension headache described as a band-like squeezing." Though it's important to talk to your doctor if you continuously experience migraine-like symptoms, they can be managed with medicine and therapy.

You have numbness or slurred speech

headacheBranislav Nenin/ShutterstockDr. Gupta says that because of their singular symptom—a headache— aneurysms are often hard to diagnose and catch. However, there are a few indicators that the pain between your eyes or in the back of your head is more than just having one-too-many drinks, and could actually be quite dangerous and life-threatening. The biggest one? Dr. Gupta explains that aneurysms "are sometimes associated with difficulty speaking, slurred speech, difficulty thinking or understanding other people, difficulty moving your arms or legs, numbness or tingling in the body, vision changes, or face drooping." She says that if you notice any of those side effects, it's time to go to the emergency room, ASAP.

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You can't concentrate

distractedPhotographee.eu/ShutterstockConcussion awareness is at an all-time high in schools and professional sports. You need to be every bit as cautious and concerned with your own noggin, says Dr. Gupta. Oftentimes, you won't know you have a concussion until you experience post-trauma—you're struggling to concentrate or have sudden memory loss. If this happens, you should seek medical attention and stay awake until you see a professional.

A headache is so bad it wakes you up

insomniaMonkey Business Images/ShutterstockThis isn't going to sound good, but one of the toughest cancers to diagnose is brain cancer, according to Dr. Gupta. Because there are many forms of brain cancer, few specific symptoms will tip you off to its presence. As with skin cancer, you're best off watching for abrupt changes for your best clue. She explains that if a headache is so severe that it wakes you up or is specifically really intense only in the mornings, it's worth bringing up with your doctor. "The only way to completely rule out causes of a more serious headache is to see a doctor who will order either a CT scan or MRI of your brain and possibly blood vessels, based on your symptoms," she explains.

If your neck is stiff or you have a fever

stiffneckfile404/ShutterstockWith only 20,000 cases in the U.S. each year, meningitis is thankfully rare. This bacterial infection causes a dangerous inflammation of the membranes covering your brain and spinal cord. If your headache is coupled with a high fever and your neck becomes sore, Tania Dempsey, MD, says to see a doctor immediately. While the majority of patients do recover from this illness, it needs to be treated promptly.

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Your headache just won't quit

doctorNotarYES/ShutterstockA stubborn headache might cause you to double-up on pain meds, chug water, and close your eyes, but if the symptoms persist Dr. Dempsey says book an appointment ASAP. Especially if you already struggle with head pain, you not being able to move past the dull sensation may be extra cause for worry. "Someone with a history of headaches who notices a change in the pattern and location of the headache and a lack of response to headache treatments that worked in the past should know that the headache is severe and needs prompt attention," she says.

It's the worst headache of your life

02-worst-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-Headache_436777447-Leszek-GlasnerLeszek Glasner/shutterstockIf you normally suffer from headaches, then perhaps this is just a little worse. But Emad Estemalik, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, says there are certain red flags to look out for including if this is the absolute worst headache of your life. If the answer is yes, head straight to the emergency room as it could be a sign of a potentially life-threatening condition including meningitis or an aneurysm.

You have visual changes

03-visual-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headaches-207522172-Tei-SinthipTei Sinthip/shutterstock"A headache that is accompanied with visual changes, vision loss, weakness, numbness, or tingling should be checked out," says Dr. Esternalik. According to the American Migraine Foundation about one-third of migraine sufferers experience aura, but for those who don't, any changes in vision, spots, blurred vision, trouble focusing that accompanies a headache should be checked out by a doctor. Try these home remedies for headaches.

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You are older than 50

04-older-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headaches-207522172-Ruslan-GuzovRuslan Guzovshu/shutterstock"If the person is over the age of 50 and they are experiencing a new type of headache or a change in a preexisting type of headache that they experienced, it's time to see a doctor" says Dr. Grosberg.

They are accompanied by other symptoms

06-symptoms-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-Headache_31434376-scionscion/shutterstockDr. Grosberg says you should keep an eye out for symptoms such as weakness, numbness, difficulty with speech/language, a problem with balance or any loss or altered level of consciousness. These does not normally accompany a headache and should be a sign to head over to a headache specialist. Find out these natural headache remedies.

Changing your position affects the headache severity

07-position-symptoms-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headache-538116163-PR-Image-FactoryPR Image Factory/shutterstockBoth Dr. Grosberg and Dr. Esternalik agree that headaches that worsen with laying down or sitting up, should be taken as a warning sign. According to The Cleveland Clinic, this could be a sign of something more serious such as a Cerebral spinal fluid leak.

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You have an underlying condition

08-underlying-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-438922870-YAKOBCHUK-VIACHESLAVshutterstock/YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV"If you have a history of fever, weight loss, rash, chills, and/or sweats accompanying the headaches, or secondary risk factors, such as a condition or medication that suppresses your immune system, it's time to make an appointment," says Dr. Grosberg. Try these stretches that may relieve your headache.

The headache hit suddenly

09-hit-symptoms-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headache-362249327-wavebreakmediashutterstock/wavebreakmediaWas this headache sudden? "If the headache come on all of a sudden, like you were being hit over the head with a baseball bat, where the pain reached maximal intensity within seconds up to a minute, see your doctor," says Dr. Grosberg.

An activity preceded the headache

10-activity-symptoms-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headache-170170235-Syda-Productionsshutterstock/Syda ProductionsCoughing, bending down, straining, or sexual activity could all set off a headache, says Dr. Estemalik. This could relate back to an underlying cause.

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Medication isn't working

11-medication-symptoms-Signs-It's-Time-to-See-a-Doctor-About-Your-headache-521059759-fizkesshutterstock/fizkesIf normal over-the-counter medications aren't working, it may be time to see the doctor, says Grosberg. Also, if you use a prescription that has suddenly stopped working, you should also consult your doctor. There are many new options of medication including Zembrace, which can help get rid of a migraine in as quickly as 10 minutes.
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