Most people get headaches from time to time. Most headaches are not serious. But they can be very painful, and you may get them often.
It's rare that a headache is caused by a serious medical problem.
Most people can treat their headaches with pain relievers that they buy without a prescription, like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil). But others may need a prescription for stronger pain medicine to help them feel better.
There are two imaging tests that can be used to evaluate your headaches:
Keep in mind that having an imaging test won't help you manage your pain. And it may not change the type of treatment you get for your headaches unless it finds a more serious problem.
In most cases, you won't need to have an imaging test to look for the cause of your headaches. Doctors can usually make a diagnosis and recommend treatment based on your symptoms and by doing a physical exam. Your doctor may order one of these tests to rule out uncommon but serious medical problems such as a brain tumor, a blood clot, an infection, or a bulge (called an aneurysm) in the wall of a blood vessel in your brain. But most headaches aren't caused by these more serious problems.
When headaches are a sign of a more serious medical problem or a head injury, you may have other symptoms along with your headache. You may vomit, feel dizzy or weak, or have numbness and tingling. Or you may have problems with your vision and coordination.
The risks from having a CT scan or an MRI are small.
During a CT scan, you're briefly exposed to radiation. But the amount of exposure is about the same as what you would get with an X-ray. If you're pregnant, a CT scan is usually not a good choice, because there is a chance that the baby might be harmed by the radiation.
An MRI doesn't use radiation. And there are no known harmful effects from the magnetic field used during the scan. But the magnet is powerful and may affect certain medical devices such as pacemakers and metal objects such as heart valves, brain clips, and ear implants.
Sometimes a dye (contrast material) may be used during a CT scan or MRI. This can make the blood vessels and certain types of tissue (such as tumors) in your brain easier to see. There is a slight chance that you may have an allergic reaction to the dye. But most reactions are mild and can be treated with medicine.
Your doctor may advise you to have an imaging test if:
|Have an imaging test||Don't have an imaging test|
|What is usually involved?|
|What are the benefits?|
|What are the risks and side effects?|
Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
"I started having headaches a few months ago, seems like out of the blue. The pain is usually on one side of my head, although it can spread to my whole head. Light hurts my eyes, and sound and quick body movements make the headaches worse. Sometimes I feel nauseous. The headaches go away in a few hours, but I feel exhausted for several days after the pain stops. My doctor said the headaches are probably migraines. She gave me some medicines to stop a migraine when it starts. I am going to try the medicines for a while and keep a headache diary to get a better idea of when my headaches occur and if there is anything (like certain foods) that might be triggering my headaches. I don't think I need imaging tests right now."
— Amy, age 26
"Headache pain started waking me up in the night a couple of months after I had a minor car accident. I didn't go to the hospital after my accident because I felt fine. The headache pain is pretty severe but doesn't stick around too long. Sometimes I feel tingling down my arm when I get a headache, and one side of my face feels numb. My vision gets a little blurry, too. I went to see my doctor, who recommended I have imaging tests to make sure I didn't injure my brain during the accident. I think I'll have the imaging tests to make sure nothing serious is causing my headaches."
— Robert, age 52
"A few hours after I went to sleep, I started waking up with extremely painful headaches that affect only one side of my head and face. My nose gets runny, and my eye waters and droops a little bit on the same side of my face. It feels like someone is sticking a hot poker in the side of my head. The headache pain usually stops in about 30 minutes, but then another one starts in an hour or two. I visited my doctor, and he said these are classic cluster headache symptoms. I think my dad had these headaches, too. I'm going to try the medicines the doctor gave me to stop the headaches and see what happens. My doctor and I discussed imaging tests, but neither of us thinks they are necessary right now. Even if I had the tests, my treatment wouldn't change."
— Ramon, age 30
"I had breast cancer a few years ago, but it went into remission after a long period of treatment. And all my follow-up tests have been cancer-free. I have been feeling pretty good for a few years now, but recently I started having headaches that make me really nauseous. I smell weird smells and sometimes I feel really spacey. Because of my history with cancer, my doctor thinks I should have imaging tests even though these may just be migraine headaches—I had a few migraines earlier in my life. My blood work keeps coming back normal, but I am really worried about what could be causing my headaches. I am going to have imaging tests just for reassurance that the cancer has not returned."
— Lita, age 42
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to have an imaging test to find the cause of my headaches
Reasons not to have an imaging test
I'm worried that something serious might be causing my headaches.
I'm not worried that something serious might be causing my headaches.
I'm not afraid to get a shot if a special dye is needed for the test.
I don't like getting shots.
I'm not worried about how much an imaging test costs, because my insurance will pay for it.
I don't have insurance, and I can't afford to pay for an imaging test myself.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Having an imaging test
NOT having an imaging test
1. Is it rare for a headache to be caused by a serious medical problem?
2. Can imaging tests rule out more serious problems such as a brain tumor?
3. Can an imaging test manage headache pain?
1. Do you understand the options available to you?
2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.
3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Colin Chalk, MD, CM, FRCPC - Neurology|