Practically everyone has experienced headache pain at some point, and for some, the problem is chronic. A minor headache may be just a nuisance that can be abated with over-the-counter pain killers, food, coffee, or just some rest. But if a headache is severe or accompanies unusual symptoms, it could signify something more serious, such as a stroke, tumor, or blood clot. Although such instances are rare, it’s good to be aware of the symptoms.
Here are 9 warning signs that indicate your headache may be something worse:
1. Headaches accompanied by vision loss
Have you ever had a headache that affected your vision? Sometimes a headache can cause pain around the eyes or temporary vision loss, even if it is not associated with a vision problem.
Giant cell arteritis (GCA), for example, is a disorder where the arteries of the head, especially those running through the temples, become inflamed. GCA frequently causes a constant, throbbing pain in the temples. Visual blurring and loss of vision may occur due to restricted blood flow to the optic nerve and retina. If you don’t often suffer headaches but find yourself with a painful one that disrupts your daily routine, it may be a symptom of GCA. It’s considered a medical emergency that may cause vision loss in both eyes if left undealt with.
2. Sudden, severe headaches
Commonly known as “thunderclap” headaches, these kinds of headaches strike very suddenly like a lightning bolt, inflicting pain that peaks in intensity within 60 seconds. Although the pain usually disappears on its own after about an hour, it can be very dangerous. It is a potentially life-threatening symptom that results in swollen vessels, which ultimately rupture and bleed in and around the brain and may lead to a fatal stroke.
3. Headaches with neck and facial pain
The carotid arteries are the four arteries along the sides of the neck which deliver blood from the heart to the neck, face, ears, and head. Should one of those arteries suffer a tear, blood may fill up spaces between the different layers of the artery. This is called carotid artery dissection (CAD). As the blood accumulates, it clots and prevents the flow of fresh blood from the heart to the brain, and this may lead to a stroke. A headache accompanied by neck and facial pain is a sign of oxygen deprivation and is the most commonly reported symptom of CAD.
4. A headache after having a head injury
Suffering a headache within the first 10 days following a head injury can be a sign of concussion. Concussions disrupt normal brain functioning after moderate or severe brain injury. In most cases, the condition isn’t life-threatening in itself, although its associated symptoms can dramatically affect a person’s functioning and quality of life.
The condition is commonly associated with symptoms such as loss of consciousness or memory and impaired vision or mental faculties. Rarely but sometimes, concussions may trigger the formation of blood clots in the brain, which can result in a sharp, debilitating headache that worsens over time and may be accompanied by vomiting and weakness.
5. Severe headaches with a fever and stiff neck
This may be due to meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord and may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. If your headache is coupled with high fever, rash, and muscle rigidity, it may be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. With only 20,000 cases in the U.S. each year, meningitis is rare. The majority of meningitis patients do recover, but it should be treated by a doctor.
6. Headaches with numbness and weakness on one side
A sudden, severe headache with weakness and numbness on one side of the head down to the shoulders and arms can indicate damage to the venous sinuses in the brain. The heart pumps blood up to the brain through the arteries where it is utilized. Blood then returns back to the heart through channels called venous sinuses. If these get clogged, it can cause an accumulation of blood and subsequent bleeding in and around the brain which may result in having a stroke.
Other symptoms to be aware of are speech and vision impairment and also sensitivity to light and loud noise.
7. Headaches that wakes you up
This is a common symptom of cluster headaches, which are also known as alarm clock headaches. Like migraines, they occur most often on just one side of the head. Cluster headaches occur in patterns called cluster periods, during which time the pain can be quite intense and disrupt your sleep. They are generally not life-threatening, though.
Headaches that wake you from sleep can also be caused by medical conditions such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, or brain tumors. Depression and caffeine withdrawal can also cause cluster headaches.
8. Headaches after physical activity
A headache that occurs after walking, jogging, running, or climbing a lot of stairs can be a sign of dehydration. Many people experiencing dehydration have reported headaches that intensified after vigorously bending down or moving their heads. Dehydration can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and mental disorientation; and, if left untreated, can eventually cause dangerously-high fevers, fainting spells, and seizures.
9. Headaches for the first time after age 50
If you’re are over the age of 50 without a history of headaches or migraines and start to experience sharp headaches for the first time, you should talk to your doctor. New-developing headaches can be the result of other health problems that need to be investigated. GCA is a common cause of new headaches in those over 50. It may accompany inflamed blood vessels due to a faulty immune response. This condition is serious and can result in blindness if it is not immediately looked at.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.