How are headaches diagnosed?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Your doctor will likely diagnose your headaches based on a conversation with you. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. If something such as a cold is causing your headache, your doctor will treat that condition. If your symptoms are not being caused by an obvious secondary source, your doctor will ask you questions about your lifestyle and the frequency with which the headaches occur.

The recognized authority for headache diagnosis is the International Headache Society (IHS) classification, which focuses on the clinical features of headaches. A clinical interview by a doctor provides the information for classifying headache symptoms according to IHS criteria. Physical or neurological examination is rarely necessary or beneficial, and brain scans are rarely taken.

Questions included in a well-constructed clinical interview focus on the four major characteristics of headaches:
  • quality (tightening or pulsating)
  • intensity (mild, moderate, severe, or very severe)
  • location (one or both sides of head)
  • response to routine physical activities (worsened or unchanged)
The doctor may gather additional information from the person suffering with a headache concerning the following:
  • headache accompaniments, which include nausea and/or vomiting; unusual sensitivity to light, sound, or odors; and aura before the onset of headache pain
  • use of nonprescription or prescription medications
  • treatment of headache pain with self-care approaches and the subjective rating of the pain relief achieved with these approaches

Because headache is such a common problem, a thorough medical examination by your primary care physician is recommended for any chronic or recurring headache. An eye exam by an ophthalmologist (Eye M.D.) may be helpful in some cases.

You can help your physician determine the cause of your headache by describing your symptoms, noting when the headaches occur and providing a complete medical history, including any family history of recurring headaches.

For any chronic or recurring headache, a thorough medical examination by your primary care physician is recommended. Learn more from our experts about headaches.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.