15 Signs Your Headache Could Be Something Way Worse

It’s safe to say that most people have had a headache, but we all have different experiences. The intensity and frequency of headaches vary with age,… Simi - December 14, 2017

It’s safe to say that most people have had a headache, but we all have different experiences. The intensity and frequency of headaches vary with age, medical history, genetics, and lifestyle. The severity of your pain may also depend on the type of headache you experience.

Tension headaches, which are often triggered by stress, are the most common. These headaches cause a dull, aching sensation on both sides of your head. The pain is persistent and can be joined by a tightening of the neck muscles, and a heavy feeling behind the eyes.

Migraines are the second type of headache and are characterized by a throbbing pain usually focused on one side of your head. Those suffering from a migraine may experience vomiting, nausea, and a headache that increases with activity. While the pain of cluster headaches can be more severe than that of migraines, it lasts for a shorter period. This type of headache causes severe burning and piercing pain that occurs behind or around one eye or one side of the face.

According to the WHO, both doctors and patients tend to dismiss headaches as an inconvenience that will soon subside. But, a headache that seems harmless may have serious implications. To help you be alert for such implications there are warning signs you can look out for to determine the seriousness of your headache.

1. Thunderclap Headache

This type of headache is as dramatic as its name suggests, striking suddenly and fiercely like a clap of thunder. The pain reaches maximum severity within a minute and can last between an hour to 10 days. There are many potential causes of a thunderclap headache. These include a burst artery or an aneurysm, leaking spinal fluid, or rapid fluctuations in blood pressure. The most common cause, however, is a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

This refers to the bleeding of an artery into the space between the brain and the tissues covering the brain. The cerebrospinal fluid, which protects the brain from injury, circulates within this space. Thus, a hemorrhage in this area should be treated immediately, to avoid possible paralysis, coma, or death.

Head trauma is often the cause of subarachnoid hemorrhage. If you have a history of head trauma, then it is important that you seek medical intervention when a thunderclap headache occurs. Doing so might rule out subarachnoid hemorrhage as the cause. Other activities that may cause this headache include, intense labor, taking certain drugs, or sudden exposure to hot water.

Signs that you are experiencing a thunderclap headache include the pain that reaches its peak within 60 seconds. The pain can also radiate to your upper back and neck, and may also cause you to vomit or feel nauseous. You may also feel mentally confused. Although there is a chance that a thunderclap headache appeared for no reason, potentially life-threatening conditions could also be responsible. A normal CT scan will often be enough to determine the cause.

2. Pain Concentrated In Your Temple and Impaired Vision

If you are stuck with a painful and disruptive headache for the first time, it could be a symptom of Giant cell arteritis (GCA). GCA is when the lining of the arteries in your head becomes inflamed, often resulting in immense head pain and visual disturbances.

With giant cell arteritis, the inflammation of the arteries causes them to swell, narrowing the blood vessels. This reduces the amount of blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to your body’s tissues. The swelling usually occurs in the arteries running through the temples. This is why Giant cell arteritis is sometimes called temporal arteritis. GCA is rarely reported in those younger than 50, while it is also twice as likely to affect women.

A headache associated with GCA is usually described as throbbing and persistent. It will often occur at the back of the head, behind the eyes, or in the upper neck. These regions may be tender to the touch and can have a burning sensation. Other common symptoms of GCA, include a tender scalp and jaw pain. It is also common to confuse the onset of the condition with the flu. It is important to look out for these symptoms when you have a sudden headache, as they could be indicative of GCA. Prompt treatment is crucial, as untreated GCA can lead to blindness or stroke.

Once diagnosed, you are likely to be prescribed corticosteroid medications. Within a few days of starting treatment, you will feel much better, with the relief of symptoms. But even with treatment, it is common to have a relapse. For this reason, regular checkups and treatment of any adverse effects from the medication are important.

3. A persistent headache with stroke-like Symptoms

According to a 2004 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, a headache is often the first and most common symptom of cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT). This condition is caused by the channels responsible for returning blood from the brain to the heart, becoming clogged. These channels are called venous sinuses. If clogged, the sinuses are unable to transport blood effectively, which could lead to blood accumulating in and around the brain.

Blood accumulation can cause pressure that results in brain swelling. This pressure can cause intense and persistent headaches. Other less common symptoms to look out for are blurred vision, vomiting, and nausea. A more severe case of CVT might cause stroke-like symptoms like speech impairment, one-sided numbness or weakness, and decreased alertness. You should notify your doctor if you begin to experience irregular headaches with other symptoms that progress over a few days.

Although CVT is a rare condition, it can be triggered by many factors. If you have experienced any of the risk factors, then it could be possible your headache is caused by a blood clot interrupting blood flow. Some of the most common risk factors include obesity, cancer, head trauma, dehydration, birth control, and infection of the neck, face or ear.

While CVT is uncommon, it can be life-threatening if left untreated. Once reported, your doctor is likely to use a CT venogram or MRI venogram to determine whether you have CVT. If caught early, the condition can be treated using oral medication; otherwise, the go-to form of treatment is usually invasive. In more severe cases, surgery may be required to remove the blood clot.

4. A Headache with a Stiff Neck

A headache accompanied by a stiff neck could be a sign of meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection of the meninges. The meninges form the tough tissue layer that surrounds the spinal cord and brain. If meningitis is not treated it can lead to swelling of the brain resulting in coma or permanent disability. Since its target location is so near to the brain, meningitis can be fatal.

Meningitis has a number of causes. The most common of which include, viral infection, fungal infection, and bacterial infection. Cases of bacterial meningitis are usually more severe and require extended hospitalization. It is uncommon for adults to develop bacterial meningitis, and so many do not consider the illness as the cause of their headaches. For this reason, the mortality rate among adults with meningitis is high.

The symptoms of meningitis can develop over 24 hours, while some cases see the patient becoming ill over one to seven days. Those who are taking antibiotics for another infection may take longer to develop symptoms, or their symptoms may be less intense. The symptoms of fungal meningitis may take weeks to develop.

If you have a headache characterized by intense pain and your neck is stiff, you should consult a doctor urgently. In most meningitis cases, the headache will be a migraine. Other symptoms to look out for include a rash anywhere on the body, disorientation, and extreme sensitivity to bright lights. A 2004 study in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that 95 percent of meningitis patients reported fever, confusion, severe headache, and stiff neck as the primary symptoms.

5. A Headache Following Unprotected Sexual Activity

While there are up to 16 different symptoms experienced by those with HIV and AIDS, headaches are one of the more common and persistent symptoms. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is transmitted through sharing of blood. You should get tested if you have recently shared a needle or had intercourse with someone whose HIV status you cannot confirm.

In a 2000 study conducted on 131 HIV patients, 16% percent reported experiencing migraines. While 45.8% reported tension-associated headaches and 6.1% reported other sorts of headaches. Although primary headaches can be caused by a number of reasons, they could indicate HIV in its initial stages. Sinus headaches or those related to other diseases fall under secondary headaches. These may indicate that HIV has progressed to a stage where the immune system has been undermined. This makes it easier for diseases to strike.

You should consider being tested if you are also experiencing other symptoms of the virus. Some of these include mild fever, night sweats, and swollen lymph nodes. Difficulty swallowing due to a sore throat, irregular fatigue, and aching muscles and joints, can also be early signs of HIV. These symptoms can occur in as little as two weeks to three months after infection.

HIV-related headaches are usually presented as unrelenting and intense. If your headache is persistent and is accompanied by other symptoms, an HIV infection is possible. However, one should not assume they have HIV judging from symptoms alone. The only certain way to confirm your status is to be tested for HIV. Regardless of symptoms, being tested is important. This is especially so, after engaging in risky behavior involving the sharing of blood.

6. A Headache with Face and Neck Pain

We have four arteries along the sides of our neck that are responsible for carrying blood from the heart to the neck, face, head, and ears. One of these four arteries may suffer a tear causing blood to enter the wall of the artery and separate its layers. This is called Carotid artery dissection (CAD).

As the blood accumulates it will begin to clot, interrupting fresh blood flow to the brain. Such oxygen deprivation will cause a headache as well as pain in the face and neck, indicating the onset of CAD. In fact, intense and sudden headaches accompanied by neck pain are most often reported by those with CAD. This is according to a 2004 study in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association.

Carotid artery dissection can be the result of minor or major trauma or injury. If you have a history with either of these then your headache with face and neck pain could be related to CAD. Excessive strain on the neck during sports or exercise, or blunt trauma injury to the neck, may lead to CAD. Those who smoke or have high blood pressure also have a high risk of being affected. The condition may also occur spontaneously due to genetic disorders.

Being aware of the risk factors and the symptoms related to CAD is important, as large blood clots might block blood flow, resulting in a stroke. Young adults are more likely to suffer a CAD-related stroke. So, if you have suddenly been affected by an intense headache and pain in the neck or face, notify a doctor as soon as you can.

7. A Headache Following Brain Injury

If your headache is within the first 10 days of a head injury or trauma, it is likely that you have developed a concussion. The brain is protected from everyday bumps and jolts by the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds it. But, a violent blow to the head, neck or upper body can cause your brain to hit against the inner walls of your skull, leading to brain injury. Events, like a car crash or being violently shaken, that cause the sudden acceleration or deceleration of the head may also lead to damage.

Such events will usually only affect brain function for a short period, while some can cause bleeding in or around the brain. This can result in prolonged drowsiness and confusion either immediately after the event or later. In some cases, bleeding in the brain can lead to death, which is why anyone who experiences a brain trauma should be monitored for the next few days.

A persistent headache is one of the most common symptoms following a brain injury. Common symptoms that may accompany your headache may be a feeling of pressure on the head, confusion, ringing in the ears, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, or loss of consciousness. Amnesia surrounding the event that caused the concussion may also occur. Symptoms can continue for days, weeks, and sometimes longer.

In most cases, a concussion is not life-threatening. Its symptoms can, however, disrupt normal brain functioning to the point where the quality of life is undermined. It is important to report any brain trauma as soon as possible, as in rare cases, it may trigger the formation of blood in the brain. This will result in a sharp headache that worsens over time.

8. Headaches During or After Sexual Activity

These headaches are also known as ‘sex headaches‘, as they are brought on by sexual activity, especially an orgasm. There are two types of sex headaches. One of them starts off as a subtle ache in your neck and head that will intensify as your sexual excitement increases. The more common sex headache is a throbbing pain that occurs just before or during orgasm. This headache may feel like a thunderclap headache as it hits suddenly and reaches its peak within a minute.

In most cases, sex headaches aren’t a cause for concern and are just regular tension headaches. But in other cases, they can be a symptom of a more serious health problem. It is important to note how these headaches tend to feel and progress for you, because sudden sex headaches may be a sign of an underlying issue. Possible causes may involve issues with the blood vessels of the brain, a stroke, or inflammation from infection.

Red flags that you should see a doctor immediately, are if you lose consciousness, have a stiff neck, vomit, or have severe pain lasting more than 24 hours. Even without extra symptoms, figuring out the trigger of your sex headaches may help prevent their occurrence in the first place. If the pain is severe and occurs more often than it should, your GP may refer you to a neurologist.

Males and people prone to migraines have a greater risk of having sex headaches. There is also a higher chance of occurrence if one is stressed, tired, or partaking in sexual activity several times in rapid succession. The degree of sexual excitement can also influence the chance of a sex headache being triggered.

9. Headache Following Physical Activity

If you do not pay attention to your water intake then a headache is likely the first symptom of severe dehydration you will notice. In fact, according to a 2004 study, most dehydrated people reported headaches that worsened during mild physical activity such as moving their heads and walking. Thus, headaches after running, jogging, walking, exercising, or climbing a flight of stairs, can be a sign of dehydration.

A dehydration headache is a secondary headache, resulting from too little fluid in the body. These headaches can appear as migraine and are more likely to occur after excessive sweating. The body sweats due to heat or intense physical activity. This causes the loss of essential fluids and electrolytes that are needed for the body’s proper functioning.

Most of the time, the fluids and electrolytes are replaced by drinking or eating fluid-rich foods. In some cases, however, the body loses fluids faster than it can be replenished. Fluid loss can cause the brain to shrink or contract. The brain pulling away from the skull is a painful process and causes a dehydration headache. This shrinking of the brain is only temporary and will return to its normal state once the body is rehydrated.

To avoid the pain, you should make sure to drink enough water throughout the day, especially at times of physical activity. Along with a headache, dehydration can also lead to mental disorientation, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. If left untreated, the fever can reach dangerous levels, and seizures or fainting spells may also be brought on. You should also look out for reduced urination and dark-colored urine as a sign that your headache is caused by dehydration.

10. You Have Had a Brain Injury and Are on Blood Thinners

If you’ve bumped your head and are on blood thinners, your headache could be a sign of a subdural hematoma or a slow bleed inside your brain. A subdural hematoma is typically a result of a head injury, such as a car crash, assault, or fall. The sudden impact on your head can cause blood vessels running along the surface of the brain to tear.

People who take blood thinners are more likely to develop subdural hematoma as the bleeding inside the brain cannot clot. A relatively minor head injury can also cause the condition to develop in those with a bleeding disorder. Having a severe headache after injuring your head, is reason enough for you to visit a doctor as soon as possible. This is especially the case if you are also experiencing sudden dizziness, fatigue, slurred speech, or confusion.

The symptoms of subdural hematoma depend mostly on the rate of bleeding, and so, may only appear several weeks after the injury. Common symptoms that may go with such a headache can be lethargy, behavioral changes, dizziness, nausea, and seizures. A person’s age and other medical conditions further influence the symptoms they have. The treatment you receive also varies according to the severity. Treatment can range from observation to surgery.

To avoid increasing your risk of a subdural hematoma after a head injury, you should find avoid taking extra blood thinners. All over-the-counter headache treatments called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have blood-thinning properties. If you are already taking blood thinner medication you should avoid NSAIDs for headache relief. Your best bet is to ask a medical professional to recommend the best treatment for a simple headache when you’re on blood thinners.

11. Your Headache Is Contagious

If the people around you, such as your family or coworkers, are complaining about head pains at the same time, this could signal CO2 poisoning. If you step outside your home or workplace to find that your headache lightens, you should warn others and have the area inspected for a CO2 leak.

Carbon monoxide is a gas that is produced as a by-product of burning wood, gas, charcoal, propane, or other fuel. If there is too much CO2 in the air then the body begins to replace the oxygen in the red blood cells with CO2. This buildup of the gas in the bloodstream is what is meant by carbon monoxide poisoning. The consequences can be very serious, possibly leading to tissue damage or death.

Because the CO2 is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, it typically takes the buildup of symptoms to recognize a CO2 leak. Hence, carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially harmful to those intoxicated or sleeping. Brain damage or even death can occur before someone realizes there is a problem. So if you find yourself with a headache in a poorly ventilated or tightly enclosed space, like a garage, step into fresh air immediately.

Besides a dull headache, other symptoms of CO2 poisoning to look out for include dizziness, weakness, shortness of breath, impaired vision and confusion. Extreme inhalation of smoke from a fire can also cause CO2 poisoning. Although the warning signs are subtle, the effects of CO2 poisoning can be life-changing. To reduce the risk of CO2 poisoning it is recommended to have all gas and engine appliances regularly checked for leaks.

12. Sudden and ‘Worst Headache of Your Life

A brain aneurysm is a bulge in a blood vessel of the brain, often resembling a berry hanging on a stem. If a brain aneurysm leaks or ruptures, it will cause temporary bleeding into the brain. Most brain aneurysms do not pose a health threat, but those that do rupture require immediate medical attention. If untreated it can quickly turn into a life-threatening situation.

Once a brain aneurysm bursts or leaks, the bleeding into the brain can damage or kill cells. The blood flow will also elevate pressure within the skull. If the pressure is too intense, the supply of blood and oxygen to the brain may be disrupted. This interference can lead to unconsciousness, and in more extreme cases, death. Hence, prompt treatment is crucial.

Aneurysms are often difficult to recognize because a headache can sometimes be the only noticeable symptom. This sudden, extremely severe headache is the hallmark of a rupture and has often been described as ‘the worst headache ever’. This headache is not restricted to one area, but it is more common for it to focus on the eyes. A rupture can cause other symptoms, but these tend to accompany or follow a headache.

Signs of a ruptured aneurysm to be alert for include nausea, vomiting, vision changes, sensitivity to light, face drooping, confusion, a stiff neck, and unconsciousness. Aneurysms may also cause difficulty speaking, thinking, and moving, as well as tingling or numbness. If you notice any of these signs accompanying your headache, seek urgent medical treatment. The likelihood of your headache being a sign of a ruptured aneurysm increases if you are over 50, and have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

13. The Usual Headache Medications Are Not Effective

A headache is one of the most common symptoms experienced by patients with brain tumors. So when a headache persists or gets worse without any improvement, it is natural to wonder whether you have a brain tumor. But it’s important to remember that brain tumors are a rare occurrence. Nonetheless, if you recognize any of the other symptoms associated with a brain tumor, or if the pain is unbearable, you should seek medical help as soon as you can.

Brain tumors themselves do not directly trigger headaches as the brain has no pain receptors. Instead, the headaches are caused by the tumor or the fluid buildup placing pressure on the pain-sensitive nerves and blood vessels of the brain. This pressure causes approximately 50% of brain tumor patients to suffer from headaches.

These headaches often have distinct features that separate them from other types of headaches. Some of these features include persistent headaches and vomiting. Depending on the location of the tumor, some patients may experience throbbing pain. Tumor-related headaches will also usually be unresponsive to traditional headache remedies. These headaches also tend to worsen when you sneeze, cough, or bend over.

Other side effects you are likely to experience if you have a brain tumor, are nausea, vomiting, and drowsiness. Trouble speaking and thinking, short-term memory loss and personality changes are also signs. If you have a history of migraines, then you would have noticed that most of the above symptoms can also occur with a primary migraine condition. Because of the similarities between a migraine condition and a headache caused by a brain tumor, getting an accurate diagnosis is necessary before jumping to conclusions.

14. New Headaches Experienced After the Age of 50

It is rare for migraines to begin in those older than 50, with only 3 percent of people above this age being first diagnosed with a migraine condition. In fact, migraines tend to get better and less frequent with age. Thus, anyone older than 50 who experiences a new headache or a change in a preexisting headache condition, should consult a doctor. There may not be anything wrong, but getting a medical opinion should be done out of precaution.

The average age for the onset of temporal arteritis is 72, with the majority of sufferers being over the age of 50. So if you’re over 50 and have a headache focused in one or both of your temples, it could be a red flag for temporal arteritis. If the throbbing pain in your temples is coupled with blurry vision, you should notify a doctor as soon as possible. If it is not treated fast enough, it is possible to lose your eyesight.

There is also a greater chance of older people developing brain bleeds. These bleeds can be triggered by an injury caused by an accidental fall. Brain bleeds can sometimes be slow, making it possible for a person to remain conscious for a while after the bleeding begins. Also, older folk are more at risk of getting a brain tumor.

The aging process can affect the cervical spine, and it is common for those over 50 to be diagnosed with cervical spine disease. A headache caused by this disease is described as a dull ache and is usually focused in the lower back area of the head. Tension headaches are also known to occur at this location, making it difficult to differentiate between the two.

15. A Headache Accompanied By Excessive Urination, Thirst, or Hunger

A headache can often be a sign of blood sugar levels spiking or dropping at a rapid rate. One of the suspected causes of low blood sugar-related headaches involves the blood vessels within the brain. If the brain senses it does not have enough sugar, its blood vessels can spasm, triggering a headache. High glucose-related headaches, on the other hand, are likely caused by increased urination meant to rid the body of excess sugar. This may cause dehydration and loss of electrolytes, leading to a headache.

Although a blood sugar-related headache does not mean you are at risk of developing diabetes, it is important to deal with it at the onset. The key to avoiding blood sugar-related headaches is to keep rapid fluctuations at bay by eating appropriately. To determine whether your headache is related to high blood sugar or low blood sugar it is necessary that you know the symptoms of both.

In most cases, a headache is the first sign of high blood sugar. Such a headache generally takes several days to appear as the symptoms of hyperglycemia are not very clear. If your headache is accompanied by fatigue, excessive thirst or hunger, blurred vision and increased urination, then it is possible that your blood glucose is too high.

Symptoms of low blood sugar are much more noticeable and quicker to arise than that of high blood sugar. If your glucose level is low, you might all of a sudden be hit with a headache. You may also experience excessive sweating, shakiness, extreme hunger, or feel faint. If your low glucose is a result of fasting, the body may release stress hormones causing blood vessels to constrict leading to a headache.