When To See a Neurologist for Headaches?

A headache that’s recurring or too severe may make you wonder whether you should see a neurologist. A neurologist's visit may not be necessary if your headache goes away on its own or with rest or self-care. But if it’s so debilitating that it disrupts your daily activities, it may be caused by other underlying conditions that require a thorough evaluation from a doctor.

Migraines and severe headaches affect one in every six adults in the U.S.A. Headaches usually occur on both sides of the head as well as the forehead, temples and nape. The ache can range from mild to severe and can be triggered by stress, anxiety, eyestrain and muscle strain. On the other hand, migraine is characterized by symptoms aside from headache, such as nausea, vomiting, neck and shoulder pain and many more.


When to See a Neurologist for a Headache?

If your headache becomes too severe and frequent to bear, it may be time to see a primary care doctor. You may be referred to a neurologist if your headache doesn’t improve with initial treatment. A neurologist specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and muscles.

Seek medical help immediately for any of the following:

  • This is the first time you have had a headache this painful, and it disrupts your daily activities.
  • Your headache suddenly comes on an explosive or violent pain. This is an emergency condition that may be caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. Call 911 right away or go to an emergency room near you.
  • Your headache worsens over 24 hours.
  • Your headache happens with a head injury.
  • You have a severe headache behind an eye with redness in that eye.
  • You have a history of immune system disorder or cancer and start to develop a new headache.
  • You experience any of the following along with your headache:
    • Balance loss
    • Confusion
    • Fever
    • Memory loss
    • Nausea
    • Problems moving your limbs
    • Slurred speech
    • Stiff neck
    • Vision changes
    • Vomiting

If possible, take note of the following details so you may mention them to your doctor during your appointment:

  • When your headaches occur
  • Whether noise or light bothers you during headaches
  • How much you slept before your headaches
  • Whether you experience vision changes before or during headaches
  • Food or drink you consumed in the last 24 hours before your headache
  • Any activities you’ve been doing before your headache started
  • Any weather changes at the time of your headaches
  • Any previous headache diagnosis or treatments you’ve tried


What To Expect at Your Doctor’s Visit?

Your doctor will inquire about your personal and family medical history and examine your head, ears, throat, eyes and neck. You will be asked questions related to your headaches. Your doctor may order medical tests such as blood tests, imaging tests or sinus X-rays if they need more information about your condition.

Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers and other medications to relieve your headache. If they don’t work, you may be given prescription medications. Make sure to strictly follow your doctor’s instructions about properly taking these medicines, as overusing them may result in a medication-overuse headache.

Lifestyle and diet changes may be recommended as treatments, such as exercising regularly, eliminating foods that trigger headaches, using relaxation techniques and managing stress. If there is little to no improvement to your headache despite these treatments, you may be referred to a neurologist who will perform neurological examinations to rule out or identify other conditions that may be causing your headache.

Don’t wait too long to call for a doctor’s appointment for your debilitating headache or if you experience other symptoms along with it. See a doctor as soon as you can.


American Headache Society
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Library of Medicine
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

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