Finding the cause of your headache

Determining what is the cause of a headache involves several steps, including a physical exam, blood tests, and imaging tests of the head and neck. Diagnosis of headache is an essential step to help determine the type and cause of your headache – and how to treat it.

Physical Examination

A physical examination includes checking vital signs to look for high blood pressure and fever. The doctor will also evaluate range of motion (how far you can move) in the neck.

Blood Chemistry Test and Urinalysis

Laboratory tests including blood chemistry and urinalysis can highlight many possible causes of headaches, including infection, kidney disease, and thyroid disease. If these tests indicate that there is no serious underlying cause for the headache, many doctors will halt testing at this point.

Electroencephalography (EEG)

In Electroencephalography (EEG), a number of small electrodes are attached to the scalp and connected to an instrument that measures and records the electrical impulses produced the brain. This test is used to evaluate neurological activity.

Computed Axial Tomography (CT or CAT scan)

Computed Axial Tomography, also called a CT of CAT scan, is a sophisticated imaging test that uses x-rays to produce cross-sectional views. Doctors use CT scans to help diagnose fractures, sinus problems, brain tumors or blood clots (indicative of stroke).

For more detailed information about CT scans, go to CT Scans.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI is another sophisticated imaging tool. It uses a strong magnetic field, rather than x-rays, to produce a highly detailed image of soft tissues. Magnetic resonance images can demonstrate even slight differences between normal and abnormal tissues.

Like CT scans, MRI was once liberally used on headache patients. These exams are now usually reserved for cases in which abnormalities are suspected.

For more detailed information about the MRI procedure, go to MRI.

Lumbar Puncture

Also known also as a “spinal tap,” a lumbar puncture is used only when meningitis or encephalitis are suspected. In this test, a needle is inserted between two vertebrae, into the spinal canal to obtain a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid is normally clear and colorless, so changes (such as cloudiness) may indicate infection. The test can cause a headache that may last for several hours.

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