How are headaches evaluated and diagnosed?

The good news for people who get headaches is that an effective treatment plan can be started once a correct headache diagnosis is made. If you have headache symptoms, the first step is to go to your family physician. He or she will perform a complete physical examination and a headache evaluation. During the headache evaluation, your doctor will ask you about your headache history and ask you to describe your headache including what they feel like, how often you get them, how long they last, how much pain they cause, what foods and events trigger them and other questions. Lifestyle questions will be asked as well, such as what you eat, how much caffeine you drink, your stress level, sleeping habits, and work issues to name a few.

A headache evaluation may include a CT scan or MRI if the doctor thinks there might be a problem with the central nervous system. Both of these tests produce cross-sectional images of the brain that can reveal abnormal areas or problems. Skull X-rays are not helpful. An EEG (electroencephalogram) may not be needed unless you have ever passed out during a headache.

If your headache symptoms become worse or become more frequent despite treatment, your family physician might refer you to a headache specialist or neurologist.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/16/2018.


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