Could your headache be a sign of a stroke, or something else? Learn about the different health conditions a headache may signal.
Billie, a resident of Asheville, N.C., had a history of allergies and sinus headaches. One morning she woke up with dizziness, headache, and facial pain. “I thought it was just my sinuses that hurt,” she says. “But it didn’t get any better, and it was different from a sinus headache. My face hurt so much I didn’t even want to brush my teeth. So my husband called the doctor and he told us to come in right away. Turns out I had giant cell arteritis [inflammation of the arteries in the face]. If I had waited, the doctor said I might have had a stroke.”
Billie’s story serves as a warning that sometimes a headache is more than just a headache. In fact, a headache can be an early warning sign of more complicated and serious health issues such as stroke, infection, or high blood pressure. And it isn’t just seniors who should be alert to this symptom — a recent large study published in the journal Stroke found that the rate of stroke in pregnant women and new mothers increased by about 54 percent over a 12-year period, largely due to high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Headache: When You Should Call Your Doctor
When should you see your doctor about a headache? According to the American Headache Society, it’s helpful to remember the word “SNOOP,” which stands for:
Systemic symptoms. In addition to a headache, you feel symptoms in other parts of your body. This could be a fever, loss of appetite, or weight loss. It also stands for secondary risk factors, so if you have a headache in addition to HIV or cancer, call your doctor immediately.
Neurologic symptoms. These symptoms include confusion, blurry vision, personality changes, weakness on one side of the body, numbness, or sharp facial pain.
Onset. This means that the headache happens suddenly, with no warning. Sometimes these are called “thunderclap” headaches. This can occur when headaches are caused by bleeding in the brain.
Older. If you are older than 50 and experience a new or progressive headache, call your doctor. You could have giant cell arteritis or a brain tumor.
Progression. There is cause for concern if it is significantly different than your other headaches, if headaches are happening more often, or it is the worst headache you have ever had.
Other serious causes of headaches include:
Stiff neck, fever, and rash. They might indicate meningitis or other infections.
Elevated blood pressure. It can also cause headaches, and can occur if you have never been diagnosed with high blood pressure, or when you have been diagnosed and your blood pressure gets out of control.
Headache: Is It a Stroke?
When the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain is interrupted (for various reasons), a stroke occurs. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one sign of stroke is a sudden severe headache with no obvious cause. Other symptoms are:
Sudden weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body.
Sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech.
Sudden difficulty seeing from one or both eyes.
Sudden dizziness, loss of balance, or difficulty walking.
The National Stroke Association suggests remembering “FAST” — a quick test to determine if someone should seek help for a stroke.
Face. Does your face droop when you smile?
Arm. Does one arm drift downward if you try to raise both arms?
Speech. Does your speech sound slurred?
Time. If you or someone else has these signs, call 911.
Take Action for Serious, Sudden Headaches
Although most headaches are not serious and will go away on their own, it’s important to recognize when headache pain could be a sign of a larger issue. Stephen D. Silberstein, MD, director of the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and past president of the American Headache Society, says: “If your headache is bad, new, or changing, see somebody.”