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Diagnosing Headaches

Diagnosing Headaches

As with all medical conditions, a doctor should be consulted for the proper diagnosis of a headache type. Depending on the type of headache, treatment may differ. Accurate diagnosis of frequent or recurring headaches is critical to finding relief when symptoms occur and establishing both a short-term and long-term treatment plan. Additionally, a headache may be a symptom of an underlying health problem requiring medical attention. In diagnosing headache types, a complete and accurate history of symptoms and characteristics of the headache is helpful. A doctor may ask for information about how the headache feels and characteristics of the headaches, including:

  • Describe the type of pain and where it is located.
  • What is the severity of the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • How often do headaches occur?
  • Have you noticed a trigger, such as situations, food, activities or medicines preempting the headache?
  • What symptoms occur along with the headache, such as sensitivity to light and/or sound, nausea, or weakness?
  • Does anyone else in your family have headaches?
  • When did you first experience this type of headache?
  • Do you experience headaches that feel different, or do you have different types of headaches?


In diagnosing a headache patient, a physical or neurological examination may also be conducted to find signs of an underlying cause, such as:

  • Trouble with balance
  • Vision abnormalities
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue or muscle weakness
  • Injuries or head trauma
  • Infections
  • Malformation
  • Tumor
  • Hemorrhage


A doctor to aid in the diagnosis of headaches and to rule out or confirm possible causes sometimes uses diagnostic tests such as an MRI. An MRI, which stands for magnetic resonance imaging, of the brain produces images that enable a radiologist to see the soft tissues inside the skull, which might help explain the cause of the headache. Similarly, a CT scan of the head may be ordered. A CT scan, which stands for computed tomography, of the head produces cross-section images of the hard structures of the brain such as the bone. A blood or urine analysis can be used to test for diabetes, thyroid problems or infections along with other medical conditions that can cause headaches.

There are multiple types of headaches and many possible headache causes. Most headache patients will not require an array of extensive diagnostic testing prior to establishing a treatment plan.

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