Everyone gets a headache from time to time. Most headaches go away on their own or with the help of over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. However, some people get headaches often and experience a lot of pain, and for them, OTC pain relievers and even prescription medicines may not offer relief from head pain. If you are one of these people, you may benefit from seeing a headache specialist.
A headache specialist is a doctor who has expertise in diagnosing and treating headache disorders. And if you have headaches that are severe, debilitating, and resistant to treatment, seeing a neurologist or other headache specialist may be helpful in getting you some relief.
Here is what you need to know about headaches, determining when it is time to see a specialist, what a headache specialist is, and the types of healthcare providers that specialize in headache disorders.
A headache is symptom of pain in the head, face, and/or neck. The most common type of headache is an underlying primary headache disorder, meaning there are no other conditions contributing to the headache. The most common are migraine, tension headache, and cluster headache.
Migraine: A migraine is a recurrent headache disorder that ranges from moderate to severe in intensity. These headaches most commonly affect one half of the head, are often described as throbbing, and can last from a few hours to days at a time.
Additional symptoms of migraine can include nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. Activity worsens migraines, and at least one-third of people with migraines experience some type of aura—a short period of visual disturbance indicating the start of a migraine. Other types of auras include numbness or weakness on one side of the body.
Tension: Tension headaches—sometimes called stress headaches—radiate in the lower back part of the head, neck, and other muscle groups on both sides of the head. Many people describe the experience as feeling like they have a "band around their head." Eye pain is also common with tension headaches. Up to 80% of the adult population in the United States experiences tension headaches.
Cluster: Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches. These headaches occur in clusters, meaning a person will experience cycles of headache attacks and headache-free periods. Each cluster headache lasts between 30 and 90 minutes at a time and can occur multiple times in a day. These cluster periods can last from two weeks to three months or longer. It is also possible for these headaches to go into remission, meaning they disappear for a long period—for either months or years. These headaches can also wake you up at night.
In general, headaches are a signal from your body that the balance, or homeostasis, of your body is off. Some of the most common reasons include:
- Lack of sleep
- Loud noises
- Effects of medications or recreational drugs
- Viral infections, including the common cold
- Head injury
- Dental problems
- Sinus issues
Frequent headaches affect a person’s daily life, both personally and professionally. Headaches can also be a common symptom of anxiety and depression. And having chronic headaches can add to your anxiety, depression, or both.
The Link Between Headaches and Depression
Medical treatment of recurrent headaches depends on their underlying cause. This may involve pain medications, but a combination of avoiding triggers and taking preventive medication is the most common and best form of treatment.
Who Should See a Headache Specialist?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 4% of the world’s population experiences 15 or more headache days a month. If you are one of these people, you might consider seeing a specialist. This is especially true if your headaches interfere with your home life, your work, or going to school.
Additional reasons to see a headache specialist are if:
- You take over-the-counter pain relievers often.
- You notice your headaches are getting worse.
- You are worried about taking too much medication.
- You have gone to the hospital emergency room for severe headaches.
- You experience neurological symptoms with headaches, including sensitivity to lights and sounds, vision changes, or weakness and numbness.
- You experience headaches over the age of 50.
- You experience headaches that wake you up from sleep, or are present when first waking up.
- You experience headaches with fever or weight loss.
How Headaches Are Treated
A headache specialist can check your symptoms, determine possible causes of headaches, and set up a detailed plan to help you manage triggers, treat pain, and improve your quality of life. And yes, your primary care physician is helpful, but a specialist has a much deeper understanding of headaches and may have access to better methods of diagnosis and newer, front-line treatments.
Types of Headache Specialists
A headache specialist is a physician who has taken an active interest in treating headaches and who attends meetings and continuing education to understand the scientific processes of headaches. Many headache specialists are certified by the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties, but not every headache specialist has this certification or needs it.
Doctors who focus on treating headaches include neurologists, pain management doctors, and other specialists. Many headache specialists work in clinics dedicated to treating people with headache disorders.
A doctor who specialists in headaches can treat a number of conditions, including migraines, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, tension headaches, and facial pain. They may also treat primary headaches—where head pain is the main problem—and secondary headaches, where headaches are a symptom of another condition.
A neurologist specializes in neurology, a branch of science concerned with the study and treatment of nervous system disorders. Neurologists are trained in diagnosing and treating disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves and muscles throughout the body. Neurologists can examine and treat nerves in the neck and head and also diagnose problems related to memory, balance, thinking, and speech.
Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Doctors
ENTs are experts in treating anything from sinus problems to ear issues, and even headaches. Headache is a primary symptom of many diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. ENTs are trained to identify the cause of headaches and create treatment plans geared toward managing the headache problem.
Sinus headaches and migraines are both linked to allergies. Headaches characterized by head pain and pressure, congestion, and watery eyes are common with colds, allergies, and major respiratory illnesses. However, while sinus infections can cause headaches, most of the time headaches that present with pain under the eyes or in the sinus regions along with congestion or watery eyes actually are migraines. Hay fever—also called allergic rhinitis—can cause headache and is linked to sinus disease.
Food allergies can be a trigger for headaches, and some foods are known for triggering migraine headaches. Allergic reactions may trigger headaches when the body produces histamines, which is the body’s response to the allergy.Histamines decrease blood pressure, which can lead to headache.
If you experience allergy-induced headaches, an allergist will likely refer you to another physician to help with treatment. When allergies are the root cause of headaches, the specific allergy also needs to be treated.
Sometimes the source of a person’s headache might be their temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The TMJ is the joint connecting the jaw to the skull.This joint allows for talking, laughing, and chewing, as it helps the jaw to move up and down and side to side. Any problem with this joint can cause a variety of symptoms, including head and ear pain. Disorders of the TMJ are called temporomandibular disorders (TMD).
A neuromuscular dentist focuses on correcting misalignment problems in the TMJ. If you see a doctor for headaches related to the TMJ, they will examine tissues, muscles, teeth, joints, and nerves of the TMJ. A neuromuscular dentist can determine underlying causes of your headaches and determine whether the TMJ is involved, or if there is another problem.
Pain Management Doctors
Pain management doctors include different pain specialists, including anesthesiologists, physiatrists, and orthopedists. A pain management specialist can help with treating the pain associated with headaches.
An ophthalmologist is a medical and surgical specialist who specializes in the treatment of eye diseases. Many people with headache disorders experience symptoms that affect eyesight, including vision changes and loss, and sensitivity to light.
An ophthalmologist can help determine whatever your headache symptoms are caused by an eye disorder. The ophthalmologist can treat an eye disorder causing headaches or refer you to another specialist if headaches are the result of another condition.
Pediatric Headache Specialists
Children and teens can also experience headaches—usually tension headaches and migraines. According to the American Headache Foundation, up to 20% of children and teens are prone to headaches. Up to 15% have tension headaches and another 5% experience migraine headaches.
Living with recurrent headaches in adolescence can cause significant distress and affect a child's quality of life. A pediatric headache specialist can help a child and their parents manage headache triggers and create a treatment plan to help the child have a normal and happy life.
Headaches in Teens
If you think you may benefit from seeing a headache specialist, talk to your primary care doctor. The National Headache Foundation offers a search tool to help you find a doctor specializing in headache medicine. Or you can visit a local headache center.
A Word From Verywell
In rare cases, a headache may indicate a stroke. A headache in someone who does not usually get them is a worrisome sign. A stroke requires immediate medical attention.In addition to a severe headache, a stroke can cause slurred speech, drooping on one side of the face, leg or arm weakness, fever, neck stiffness. confusion, seizure, trouble speaking, an aura, or loss of consciousness. Most people describe headaches associated with stroke as the worst headaches ever experienced.
Knowing the signs of a stroke can help you to get help quickly and improves your chance of a full recovery. Early treatment also increases your potential for survival and decreases your risk for more serious complications. Call your local emergency services and get to an emergency room if you think you—or someone else—are having a stroke. Don't delay treatment, as every second when responding to a stroke counts.
Headache As a Sign of Stroke
A headache specialist is a doctor who has expertise in diagnosing and treating headache disorders. And if you have headaches that are severe, debilitating, and resistant to treatment, seeing a neurologist or other headache specialist may be helpful in getting you some relief.What is the difference between a neurologist and a headache specialist? ›
Headache specialists are neurologists who have completed an additional year of training (called a fellowship) specifically in headache medicine and have been certified by the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties. They stay up to date on headache research and new treatment options.What is the best doctor to see for headaches? ›
If you have severe headaches or accompanying symptoms that are disrupting your life, it might be a good idea to see a neurologist. Consider making an appointment with a neurologist if: Your headache is continuous for more than a day or two. Your headaches tend to come on suddenly.What will a neurologist do for headaches? ›
A neurologist can help by doing a complete evaluation and ordering tests, if needed. They will work with you to determine the cause of your headaches and develop a treatment plan to help you find relief.What are the symptoms of a neurological headache? ›
Symptoms include partial or total loss of vision or double vision, dizziness and loss of balance, poor muscle coordination, slurred speech, a ringing in the ears, and fainting. The throbbing pain may come on suddenly and is felt on both sides at the back of the head.Is a headache a neurological problem? ›
Migraine is a neurologic disorder that not only causes headaches, but often also a constellation of symptoms that can impact daily living, explains Jason Sico, MD, MHS, a Yale Medicine neurologist.What blood test is done for headaches? ›
Laboratory tests for patients with headache include a complete blood count (CBC), thyroid function, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), glucose levels, electrolyte and fluid balance, and kidney function such as blood urea nitrogen (BUN). Hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism may be associated with headaches.What's the cause of everyday headache? ›
The causes of many chronic daily headaches aren't well-understood. True (primary) chronic daily headaches don't have an identifiable underlying cause. Conditions that might cause nonprimary chronic daily headaches include: Inflammation or other problems with the blood vessels in and around the brain, including stroke.How long is too long for a headache? ›
What do I do if my headache won't go away? If your headache persists for longer than 72 hours, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. The same is true for headaches that come and go but continuously occur in the same spot.Should I see a doctor if I have constant headaches? ›
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if: Your headache gets worse or doesn't improve with an over-the-counter pain medication. Your headache prevents you from working, sleeping or going about your daily activities. Your headaches start occurring more often than usual or are more painful and intense than usual.
An MRI may also be ordered if there is a change in your headaches or anything unusual about them, if there are additional symptoms happening with your headaches, or if there is concern there might be a structural problem causing your headaches.How does a neurologist check your head? ›
An electroencephalogram measures your brain waves. Your neurologist will put electrodes, which are small metal discs, on your scalp. This will help your doctor look at your brain activity to see if your pain is from a brain disorder, brain damage, brain dysfunction, or sleep issues.What does an MRI of the brain show for headaches? ›
In some migraine patients, an MRI may show white spots on the brain. These spots are called white matter hyperintensities (WMHs), which are lesions in the brain visualized by areas of increased brightness. They can vary in size and location in areas of the brain.What illnesses cause a bad headache? ›
- drinking too much alcohol.
- a head injury or concussion.
- a cold or flu.
- temporomandibular disorders – problems affecting the 'chewing' muscles and the joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull.
- sinusitis – inflammation of the lining of the sinuses.
Depending on where you feel pain, the headache location usually determines what kind of headache you have: Tension headache: Both sides of your head or a band around your head. Migraine headache or hormonal headache: One side of your head. Cluster headache: One side of your head, specifically in or around your eye.Which disease has symptoms like headache? ›
This can include infections, colds, and fevers. Headaches are also common with conditions like sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses), a throat infection, or an ear infection. In some cases, headaches can result from a blow to the head or, rarely, a sign of a more serious medical problem.Do headaches fall under neurology? ›
A neurologist may also perform a neurological exam, which helps them diagnose disorders of the central nervous system, including headache disorders.When should you see a neurologist? ›
See a neurologist if you experience the following, especially if you have a family history of neurological issues: Numbness or weakness that comes on suddenly or happens on one side of the body (if you think you are having a stroke, however, go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately)How do patients referred to neurologists for headache differ from those managed in primary care? ›
Patients with headache who are referred consult more frequently, attribute more symptoms to their headache, have stronger emotional representations, and are more worried and made anxious by their headache symptoms.What neurological disorders cause migraines? ›
Migraine has possible links to other brain diseases, such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS) and fibromyalgia. Some of these diseases have symptoms that are similar to migraine, but they also have their own unique differences.