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When Does a Headache Warrant a Trip to the Emergency Room?

May 25, 2018

Woman suffering from headache
For many people, headaches seem like nothing more than a mild annoyance. For others, they can cause severe, disabling pain. So, when are headaches just a bothersome ache or something more serious?

Reasons for a Headache

Headaches occur when pain-sensitive nerve endings around the scalp, in the blood vessels that surround the skull and in other areas around the head send impulses to the part of the brain that interprets pain signals from the rest of the body. Common types of headaches include tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches or sinus headaches. You may also get a headache with a cold, the flu or other viral illnesses when you have a low fever or congestion.

However, problems with blood vessels can cause a headache and need immediate medical attention. These problems include:

  • Stroke – blood flow to part of the brain stops
  • Brain aneurysm – weakening of the wall of a blood vessel that can break open and bleed into the brain
  • Bleeding in the brain or intracerebral hematoma
  • Bleeding around the brain which can be a subarachnoid hematoma, subdural hematoma or an epidural hematoma

Other causes of a headache that require examination from a healthcare professional include:

  • Very high blood pressure
  • Brain tumors
  • Brain swelling from altitude sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning or acute brain injury
  • Infection in the brain or the tissue that surrounds the brain
  • Swollen, inflamed artery that supplies blood to part of the head, temple and neck area

Signs of an Emergency

The best time to visit the emergency room for a headache is when the symptoms are unusual for you. It’s important to get these new symptoms checked out as they may signal a more significant issue, such as an aneurysm or meningitis. Additionally, headaches that start very suddenly (within a few seconds) can be an indication of a stroke.

Other signs that your headache is an emergency are:

  • It’s the first severe headache you’ve had in your life and it interferes with daily activities.
  • It begins after activities such as weightlifting, aerobics, jogging or sex.
  • The headache is “the worst ever,” even if you get headaches regularly.
  • You have slurred speech, change in vision or see floating spots, problems moving your arms or legs, loss of balance, confusion or memory loss.
  • Your headache has gotten worse over 24 hours.
  • You also have a fever, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting.
  • You also have a head injury.
  • You’re experiencing a severe headache in just one eye and redness in that eye.
  • You’ve had a recent onset of headaches, especially if you are older than 50.
  • It’s causing vision problems, pain while chewing or weight loss.
  • You have a history of cancer and develop a new headache since treatment.
  • Your immune system is weakened by disease or medications.

If you believe that your headache calls for immediate medical attention, St. Vincent Neighborhood Hospital is here for you. Our innovative model and streamlined processes allow patients to meet with doctors within fifteen minutes of their arrival. Each of our facilities are equipped with 24/7 dedicated radiologists and state-of-the-art radiology and imaging services with turnaround times of 30 minutes or less.

Find the St. Vincent Neighborhood Hospital nearest you.