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Headaches Center

Headache Diagnosis

Headaches can seriously affect your quality of life.  But how do doctors locate the source of a potential problem?  And what doctors should you see? In this section, we'll outline the tests and exams necessary to confirm a diagnosis for problem headaches.

Medical exam
The first step toward diagnosing a headache is to see your family physician. Your family physician will want to better understand the circumstances of your headaches (around light?  noise?  during exercise?  stress?), and how frequently they occur.  Also, a/he will want to better understand your family history, as some types of headaches may be due to genetics (e.g. migraines).  Additionally, if you've ever suffered any head injury, had dental surgery or problems, have eyestrain, etc., this information will be relevant as well.  

If your doctor feels it necessary, s/he may refer you to a neurologist or internist.  This referral may be necessary if conventional treatments are not effective.  Or, you may see a specialist if you have a serious type of headache.  For example, if you experience a status migrainosus headache, in which a severe headache lasts for 72 hours or longer and requires hospitalization, you may see a neurologist. 

Specific tests for headaches
In addition to your medical history, your doctor may run several tests in order to determine if the headache is a result of an infection, a tumor or abscess, aneurism, misfiring of the brain's neurons, etc.  Headaches may occur due to specific physical conditions, so one or more tests may allow your doctor to determine the underlying cause.   These tests in combination with your medical history and a physical/neurological examination should allow your doctor to pinpoint the cause.

CT scan (computed tomoraphic) - this test provides a 3-D image of the brain, thus allowing doctors to look for physical problems (such as tumors). 

EEG (electroencephalogram) - this test measures brain activity by recording the firing of neurons in the brain.  While it cannot diagnose the cause of a headache, it can tell a doctor if there is a malfunction in the brain's firing of neurons.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) -  Like a CT scan, an MRI provides of the internal features of the body, but in greater contrast than CTs.  This may be useful for identifying brain tumors or blood vessel issues.

Additionally, if doctors suspect that you are experiencing an infection, they will order other miscellaneous tests.  For example, suspicion of meningitis-caused headaches may require a spinal tap.  Or, a headache caused by a sinus infection may require a nasal endoscopy. 

Your doctor will be able to make a treatment recommendation upon examining your medical history in conjunction with your test results.  But how can you medically treat a headache?  And can you realistically expect for headaches to go away completely? To learn more about headache relief, read the next section on how to treat a headache here.

 

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