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What Are Secondary Headaches? A Neurologist Explains

A Neurologist’s Guide to Secondary Headaches and What They Mean

Shot of a young woman experiencing a bad headache while relaxing at home

When harsh headaches strike, identifying the cause of your pain can be the least of your worries. Instead, you kick into survival mode, seeking refuge in a dark, quiet room, ice packs on deck.

But, should you be investigating your symptoms more?

If your gut is convinced something greatly differentiates this headache from those you've experienced prior, it's important to see a doctor to rule out the possibility of a secondary headache.

Unlike common migraine, tension, or cluster headaches (which fall under the primary category), secondary headaches are often telling of underlying health problems.

Before you go Google diagnosing yourself in a panic, follow up with your doctor for a proper diagnosis. For more info on the topic of mind, read through this guide to secondary headaches from Dr. Stephen A. Kulick, MD, a neurology specialist in Staten Island, ahead.

What Are Secondary Headaches?

Secondary headaches are actually the symptom of another cause, like encephalitis or meningitis, for example — as opposed to primary headaches, which aren't the result of another medical condition.

According to Dr. Kulick, 10 percent of all headaches are secondary, making them a lot less common than primary.

How Can You Identify a Secondary Headache?

Since secondary headaches are often indicative of an undiagnosed health issue, Dr. Kulick insists that they always warrant professional attention and a diagnosis from a neurologist.

If you're struggling to determine whether or not you have a primary or secondary headache, Dr. Kulick suggested asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is your pain level higher than any other headache you've ever had?
  • Is it lasting longer, coming on stronger and more quickly?
  • Are your headaches more frequent than others you typically get?
  • Did the pain come on after a fall or head trauma of any kind?
  • Is it a different kind of pain than you usually feel when you get a headache?
  • Have over-the-counter pain relievers not been effective in providing relief?
  • Does your headache worsen or change when you stand up, lie down, sneeze, cough, or strain?
  • These are all reasons to see a doctor in order to rule out any serious issues and receive proper pain-relieving medication.

    What Are Some Underlying Causes of Secondary Headaches?

    Remember: there is no need to stress about what your headache means until you have spoken to a doctor.

    But, it's important to seek emergency care if the headache is painful or debilitating, or accompanied by confusion, fainting, or high fever, Dr. Kulick said. He also noted that secondary headaches can be attributed to imbalances in the body — for example, high blood pressure, renal, thyroid, allergy, or sleep problems, and even dehydration — but they could also be attributed to other dangerous conditions affecting the brain.

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    Image Source: Getty / Moyo Studio
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