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Are headaches a sign of something serious?

July 14, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Ashley Sanchez, 23, says she feels like she is always fishing around her purse for pain medication. She never knows when a migraine will hit."They feel really like nail in your forehead. I have intense, intense pressure behind my eyes. And ... it's just awful," said Ashley.

The pain was so awful, she ended up in the emergency room twice.

"They just gave me morphine unfortunately. A very, very strong painkiller," said Ashley.

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin sometimes work, but sometimes they don't. Experts say there are about 300 different types of headaches, but only about ten percent have a known cause.

Emergency room physician Dr. Brian Johnston says long term headaches, like Ashley's, are not usually life threatening. However, he says some headaches need immediate attention.

"If you're over 50 years of age, and you suddenly find yourself having headaches, that's a cause for alarm," said Dr. Johnston, White Memorial Medical Center.

Other headaches that are cause for concern:

  • Headaches following a head injury
  • Severe onset of head pain, which could represent hemorrhage
  • Headaches that trigger personality change or ability to function
  • Major change in pattern of headaches
  • Pain that increases with coughing or movement
  • Headaches with fever, stiff neck or confusion

Dr. Johnston says headaches fitting the above criteria should be evaluated immediately at a hospital's emergency department.

"People who've never had headaches before and all of a sudden you're having headaches, that could be a sign you have high blood pressure," added Dr. Johnston.

Ashley's mom has a history of migraines. Dr. Johnston says people with familial migraines can find effective treatment strategies if they work with their doctor.

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