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Acute Headache


What is an acute headache?

An acute headache is pain or discomfort that starts suddenly and gets worse quickly.

What are the most common types of acute headaches?

  • Tension headache: This is the most common type of headache. These headaches typically occur in the late afternoon and go away by evening. The pain is usually mild or moderate. You may have problems tolerating bright light or loud noise. The pain is usually across the forehead or in the back of the head, often only on one side. These headaches may occur every day.
  • Migraine headache: Migraines cause moderate or severe pain. The headache generally lasts from 1 to 3 days and tends to come back. Pain is usually on only one side, but it may change sides. Migraines often occur in the temple, the back of the head, or behind the eye. The pain may throb or be sharp and steady.
  • Migraine with aura: An aura is something that you see or feel, and occurs before a migraine. You may see a small spot surrounded by bright zigzag lines. Other signs or symptoms may follow the aura.
  • Cluster headache: The pain of a cluster headache is usually only on one side. It often causes severe pain, and can last for 30 minutes to 2 hours. These headaches may occur 1 or 2 times each day. These headaches occur more often at night, and may wake you up.

What causes acute headaches?

The cause of your headache may not be known. The following conditions can trigger a headache:

  • Stress: Tension or stress may cause headaches hours or even days after stressful events.
  • Fatigue: You may get a tension headache when you are tired. A lack of sleep or changes in your usual sleep pattern can cause a migraine. You may also get a headache if you nap during the day.
  • Hormones: Menstruation may cause headaches, especially for teenagers or after pregnancy. Headaches are also more likely if you use birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
  • Food: Cured meats, artificial sweeteners, red wine, dark chocolate, and MSG may trigger headaches. If you are used to drinking 2 to 3 cups of coffee with caffeine each day, you may get a headache if you stop suddenly. Alcohol may also cause headaches.
  • Medical problems: This includes infections, tooth pain, neck or sinus pain, thyroid problems, and tumors.
  • Trauma: A blow to the head can cause an acute headache.

What signs and symptoms may be related to an acute headache?

  • Fever
  • Sinus pressure
  • Loss of memory
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Problems with your vision, such as watery or red eyes, loss of vision, or pain in bright light
  • Stiff neck
  • Tenderness of the head and neck area
  • Trouble staying awake, or being less alert than usual
  • Weakness or less energy

How is an acute headache diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10. Tell him how often you have headaches and how long they last. Show him where you feel the pain. He will ask you to describe the pain.

How is an acute headache treated?

  • Pain medicine: You may be given medicine to take away or decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.
  • Biofeedback: Electrodes (wires) are placed on your body and attached to a monitor. You will learn how to change stress reactions. For example, you learn to slow your heart rate when you become upset. You may also learn to prevent certain headaches by combining heat with relaxation.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy: This therapy is also called stress management. It may be used with other therapies to prevent headaches.

How can I help manage my symptoms?

  • Heat: Heat helps decrease pain and muscle spasms. Use a small towel dampened with warm water or a heating pad, or sit in a warm bath. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. Alternate heat and ice.
  • Keep a headache diary: Record the dates and times that you get headaches, and what you were doing before the headache started. This might help you learn if there is something that triggers your headaches.
  • Relax your muscles: Lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Relax your muscles slowly. Start at your toes and work your way up your body.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a constant headache and are vomiting.
  • You have a headache each day that does not get better, even after treatment.
  • You have changes in your headaches, or new symptoms that occur when you have a headache.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have severe pain.
  • You have a headache that occurs after a blow to the head, a fall, or other trauma.
  • You have a headache and are forgetful or confused.
  • You have numbness on one side of your face or body.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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