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Diagnosis of Headache
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The cause of a headache can be difficult to determine. The doctor will ask about the frequency and pattern of your headaches. To help provide answers, keep a diary of:
- When your headaches start and end
- What you were doing at the time
- What you did to try to relieve pain and how effective the treatment was
- Family members with the same condition
- Triggers that you are aware of
- Where the pain is located and where it spreads to
- Other symptoms associated with the pain
Tests to determine the cause of headaches include:
Neurological exam to assess:
- Muscle strength
- Mental status
- Cranial nerve function
- Blood tests—Blood tests may be done to exclude other causes of your headache. These include blood glucose, a complete blood count looking for anemia or infection, as well as other studies to potentially look for evidence of inflammation.
- Lumbar puncture —During this procedure, spinal fluid is collected to look for bleeding, infections, or cancer. The opening pressure may also be measured.
Imaging tests are used to evaluate internal structures for abnormalities. Some tests may use contrast material to make structures easier to see. These may include:
Guidelines for All Doctors in the Diagnosis and Management of Migraine and Tension-Type Headache. 2nd ed. London, UK: British Association for the Study of Headache (BASH); 2004.
Headache—frequently asked questions. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: http://www.headaches.org/headache-faq. Accessed November 7, 2012.
International classification of headache disorders. 2nd ed. Cephalalgia. 2004:24(suppl):1-160.
International classification of headache disorders. 2nd ed. (1st revision.) Cephalalgia. 2005;25:460-465.
May A. A review of diagnostic and functional imaging in headache. J Headache Pain. 2006;7(4):174-184.
NINDS headache information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/headache/headache.htm. Updated September 2012. Accessed November 7, 2012.
Sahai-Srivastava S, Desai P, Zheng L. Analysis of headache management in a busy emergency room in the United States. Headache. 2008;48(6):931-938.
- Reviewer: Rimas Lukas, MD
- Review Date: 12/2015
- Update Date: 12/20/2014