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Headache

Last updated: August 2, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Headache is a symptom commonly encountered in everyday clinical practice, and, according to the WHO, one of the ten most common causes of functional disability. It may be primary (e.g., tension-type headaches, migraine) or secondary (e.g., following head trauma or infections) in nature. Although most episodes of headache are harmless, potentially life-threatening causes (e.g., subarachnoid hemorrhage, meningitis) should always be considered. Identifying the cause of headaches is often difficult and requires a detailed clinical history as well as a thorough physical examination. Additional diagnostics, e.g., imaging, are only indicated if headaches persist despite treatment or if specific clinical features are present that are signs of an underlying disease. This article gives an overview of the most common types of headache and serves as a guide to diagnosing different headache disorders.

Approach to management

  1. Check vital signs.
  2. Perform focused history and examination.
  3. If red flags are present:
    • Obtain brain imaging (either CT or MRI brain with and/or without contrast) based on the red flag symptoms. [1]
    • Perform further targeted diagnostics (see below).
  4. If no red flags are present and suspicion for life-threatening causes is low:
    • Perform a detailed history and clinical exam.
    • Consider whether further diagnostic testing is necessary.
  5. Provide supportive care.
  6. Identify and treat the underlying cause.

Red flags for headache [1]

Life-threatening conditions [1]

  • Lifetime prevalence: > 90%, with female predominance (except cluster headache) [3]
  • Most common forms of headache [3]
    • Tension-type headache: 40–80% of cases
    • Migraine: 10% of cases

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

See “Differential diagnoses” below.

History of present illness

Past medical history, social history, and family history

Physical examination

Consider secondary life-threatening causes if red flags for headache are present!

Approach [4]

  • Diagnostic evaluation should be performed based on risk stratification and the suspected diagnosis.
    • Low-risk headache: No routine laboratory tests or imaging are recommended.
    • High-risk headache: Consider diagnostic workup based on the suspected diagnosis.
  • Primary headache is a clinical diagnosis and typically does not require laboratory or imaging evaluation.

Risk stratification of headache [4][5]

Clinical features
Low-risk headache
High-risk headache

Laboratory studies

Imaging [6]

Recommended initial imaging modality for headache [7]
Initial test of choice Alternatives
Sudden-onset severe headache (i.e., thunderclap headache)
  • CT head without IV contrast
  • CTA with IV contrast
New headache with papilledema
  • MRI head
    • Without contrast
    • Without and with IV contrast
  • CT head without IV contrast
  • CTV head with IV contrast
  • MRV head
    • Without IV contrast
    • Without and with IV contrast
  • CT head with IV contrast
New or worsening headache related to head trauma or accompanied by red flags
  • CT head without IV contrast
  • MRI head
    • Without IV contrast
    • Without and with IV contrast
  • N/A

New primary headache suspected to be of trigeminal autonomic origin

(e.g., cluster headache)

  • MRI head without and with IV contrast
  • MRI head without IV contrast
Chronic headache with new features or change in character, severity, or frequency
  • MRI head
    • Without IV contrast
    • Without and with IV contrast
  • CT head
    • Without and with IV contrast
    • Without IV contrast

Additional diagnostics to consider [6]

The diagnostic modality should be determined by the patient history and clinical presentation. Neuroimaging is usually not indicated for primary or low-risk headaches.

Types of primary headaches
Tension headache Migraine headache Cluster headache
Sex
Duration
  • 30 minutes to a couple of days
  • 4–72 hours
  • 30–180 minutes
  • Short, recurring attacks
Frequency
  • Occasionally to daily
  • Episodic or chronic
  • Occasionally to several times a month
  • 1–3 episodes every 24 hours
  • Usually occur in a cyclical pattern (clusters)
Localization
  • 60% are unilateral.
  • Mostly unilateral
  • Localized to the periorbital and/or temporal region
Character
  • Dull, nonpulsating, band-like or vise-like pain
  • Constant
  • Pulsating, boring/hammering pain
  • Often burning or piercing pain
  • Attacks develop within several minutes
  • Often wakes patients up from sleep
Intensity
  • Mild to moderate
  • Moderate to severe
  • Severe, agonizing pain
  • Because of the severity of pain, some patients report experiencing suicidal thoughts (hence the name “suicidal headache”).
Additional symptoms
Triggers/exacerbating factors
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep, fatigue
  • Routine activities (e.g., climbing stairs) do not exacerbate symptoms.
  • Alcohol
Diagnostic findings
  • Clinical diagnosis
  • Clinical diagnosis [2]
  • Neuroimaging: typically normal findings [8][9]
  • Clinical diagnosis [10]
Acute management

The typical migraine headache can be remembered by “POUND”: pulsatile, one-day duration, unilateral, nausea, disabling intensity.

Diagnosis Clinical features Diagnostic findings Acute management
Meningitis [11][12][13]
Intracerebral hemorrhage [14][15]
Subarachnoid hemorrhage [16]
Subdural hematoma (SDH)
  • CT head without contrast: crescent-shaped, concave, hyperdense hemorrhage that crosses suture lines but not the midline
Epidural hematoma [17]
  • Headache localized to the side of the hematoma
  • Contralateral focal symptoms/hemiplegia
  • Impaired mental status, loss of consciousness, seizures, nausea, and vomiting
  • Nearly half of patients who lose consciousness will have a lucid interval followed by clinical deterioration due to further expansion.
  • CT head without contrast: biconvex, hyperdense lesion
Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis [18]
Giant cell arteritis [20][21][22][23]
Hypertensive crises [24][25]
Ischemic stroke [26][27]
Intracranial space-occupying lesions (e.g., brain tumors) [28][29][30]
Concussion (e.g., mild traumatic brain injury) [31][32][33]
  • Clinical diagnosis
  • CT head without contrast: usually normal
Trigeminal neuralgia [34][35]
  • Paroxysmal (seconds to 2 minutes) and stabbing pain
  • Unilateral facial pain, strictly localized to the distribution of the branches of the trigeminal nerve
  • Frequency and intensity of episodes usually increase over time
  • Tender trigger points
  • Triggered by chewing, talking, cold, and touching specific areas of the face
  • No neurologic deficits
  • Clinical diagnosis [35]
  • MRI brain: vascular compression of the trigeminal root
Medication overuse headache
  • Headache with variable characteristics
  • History of analgesic overuse
  • Autonomic symptoms (e.g., nausea)
  • Cognitive or behavioral symptoms (e.g., comorbid depression)
  • Clinical diagnosis

Primary headache

Secondary headache

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

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