Headache Diagnosis

Tests Used for Diagnosing Headaches

There are no tests that are routinely recommended to help with diagnosing headaches. However, depending on your particular situation, your healthcare provider may recommend certain tests to help rule out serious causes of headaches. This may include blood tests, imaging tests (such as an MRI or CT scan), or vision tests. Depending on the suspected cause, healthcare providers may recommend other tests, such as an electroencephalogram (EEG) or a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).
CT Scan or MRI
A healthcare provider may suggest that a patient with unusual headaches undergo a computed tomographic (CT) scan and/or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. The scans enable the healthcare provider to distinguish, for example, between a bleeding blood vessel in the brain and a brain tumor. These scans are also important diagnostic tools in cases of headaches associated with brain lesions or other serious diseases.
CT scans produce x-ray images of the brain that show structures or variations in the density of different types of tissue. MRI scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to produce an image that provides information about the structure and biochemistry of the brain.
If an aneurysm (an abnormal ballooning of a blood vessel) is suspected, a healthcare provider may order a CT scan to examine for blood. He or she may then order an angiogram. In this test, a special fluid that can be seen on an x-ray is injected into the patient and carried by the bloodstream to the brain to reveal any abnormalities in the blood vessels there.
A physician analyzes the results of all of these diagnostic tests, along with a patient's medical history and examination, in order to arrive at a diagnosis.

When to Visit Your Healthcare Provider for Headaches

The National Headache Foundation suggests that you talk with your healthcare provider about your headaches if you have:
  • Several headaches per month, each lasting for several hours or days
  • Headaches that disrupt your home, work, or school life
  • Nausea, vomiting, vision problems, or other sensory problems
  • Headaches accompanied by a fever, weight loss, or shortness of breath.
You should also talk with your healthcare provider immediately if any of the following is true:
  • Your headache is new or is different in its location or severity
  • It is your "worst headache ever"
  • You experience a "thunderclap" headache, which has a peak intensity within seconds to minutes
  • You have sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arms, hands, or legs (especially if it is only on one side) or other possible transient ischemic stroke (TIA) or stroke symptoms.
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