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When is it Time to See a Specialist About Your Headaches?

Headaches. We’ve all had them. They can range from a dull, annoying ache to a truly day-stopping throb. They can be localized to a single area, like the temple or forehead, or they can cover the entire head. They can last for only an hour, or they can go on for days. The one thing they all have in common? They’re distracting and painful.

What Causes a Headache?

There are nearly as many different triggers for headaches as there are headache sufferers. Triggers can include allergies, stress, neck injuries, hormonal changes, poor sleep patterns, among many others. Primary headaches are those not caused by an underlying disease, such as tension headaches and migraines. Secondary headaches are those which result from a disease or illness, such as the flu, a sinus infection, abnormal blood vessel formations or even dental problems.

A Few Things to Try

When we have a headache, most of us reach for over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. And that’s fine, especially for an occasional headache. But, OTC medications aren’t without risks, and can even lead to rebound headaches if taken too often. Here are a few other things to try.

  • Reduce your stress – Stress can trigger tension headaches and migraines. You can’t always avoid stress, but you can try using stress-reduction techniques. These can include meditation, deep breathing exercises, and even yoga. You can add these practices to your daily routine to prevent headaches before they start, or use them therapeutically when you’re experiencing pain.
  • Stay hydrated – Dehydration is notorious for causing headaches (called dehydration headaches) and for triggering migraines. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help avoid this kind of pain. Drinking a full glass of water when you first notice a headache can help alleviate it if it is a dehydration headache.
  • Know your triggers – Certain foods or drinks, erratic sleep patterns, and even changes in the weather have been associated with headaches in some people. Tracking your headaches and knowing your triggers can help you avoid them. You want to track frequency, time of day, diet, and duration to better understand your triggers.
  • Try some TLC – Sometimes simple home remedies can alleviate a headache. For migraines, try lying down in a darkened, quiet room, for example. Cold compresses can also be helpful, either on your forehead or at the back of your neck. Herbal teas such as ginger, peppermint or chamomile can soothe some mild headaches, while caffeinated drinks may work for migraines.

Is it Time to Make an Appointment?

If you’ve tried home treatments without relief, it’s time to see your doctor. Even if you’re used to managing your own headaches, if you notice a change in their frequency or intensity, make that appointment.

Other reasons to seek medical advice include having headaches that don’t respond to OTC medications, having headaches that keep you awake, or having headaches that interfere substantially with your work or daily activities.

Should You See Your General Physician?

When seeking treatment for your headaches, your regular doctor is a great place to start. After all, they already know you and have access to all your healthcare records. If your health insurance includes an HMO, you may be required to visit your primary care physician for a referral before you can see a specialist. If your general physician comes up with a treatment plan that makes sense to you and gives you results, then you’re home free. There’s no need to look further.

Should You See a Headache Specialist?

But, what if your doctor’s plan doesn’t work? What if your pain is still severe and debilitating? Then it may be time to see a headache specialist. A headache specialist is a doctor – sometimes a neurologist – who is trained in the diagnosis and treatment of headaches. They have focused their professional training specifically on the treatment of headaches and can help diagnose patients with unusual or complicated headache symptoms.