7 Signs Your Headache Isn’t Normal
Like nearly all conditions that revolve around pain, headaches can be tricky to categorize. A headache one person would call “terrible” might feel mild to someone else.
But speaking generally, you need to see your primary care physician if your headache status changes, says Mark Morocco, MD, a clinical professor and ER doc at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. That means if you never had headaches, but now you seem to have them all the time, your doctor should know about that change, Morocco says. Or if the intensity of your regular migraines has suddenly ratcheted up, that’s also something worthy of your doctor’s attention.
Even in those situations, chances are good your headaches are not of the life-threatening variety. “People are always worried about brain tumors,” Morocco says. But headaches are actually not among the symptoms experts usually associate with a tumor (here are the actual warning signs of a brain tumor).
On the other hand, there are some warning signs that your headache is a true medical emergency. Here’s what to watch out for:
If a severe headache comes on suddenly—”Like someone flipping a light switch, or hitting you with a hammer,” Morocco says—that’s something to take seriously. It could be a “subarachnoid hemorrhage” (SAH), or bleeding within your brain caused by a leaking aneurysm (here’s how to spot an an aneurysm before it’s too late). “That’s a dangerous headache, and you need to call 9-1-1 or have someone take you to the hospital,” Morocco says. To be clear, this isn’t a sharp pain that recedes in a matter of seconds or minutes. “It won’t go away quickly,” he adds. “But you don’t want to make the mistake of taking heavy pain pills and going to sleep.”