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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
    • Coordination
    • Reflexes
    • Sensation
    • 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:

  • X-rays.
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Nasal endoscopy—A thin, lighted tube with a camera is inserted into the nasal cavity. If needed, tissue samples can be taken for examination under a miroscope.

References

Cluster headache. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116292/Cluster-headache. Updated February 16, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2016.

Headache. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114773/Headache. Updated August 9, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2016.

Headache—frequently asked questions. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: http://www.headaches.org/headache-faq. Accessed November 7, 2012.

May A. A review of diagnostic and functional imaging in headache. J Headache Pain. 2006;7(4):174-184.

Migraine in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114718/Migraine-in-adults. Updated June 24, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2016.

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.

Tension-type headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114522/Tension-type-headache. Updated September 15, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2016.



Last reviewed December 2015 by Rimas Lukas, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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