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Diagnosing Migraines and Headaches

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Physical and Neurological Exams to Diagnose Headaches

After completing the headache history portion of the evaluation, the doctor will perform a complete physical and neurological exam. The doctor will look for signs and symptoms of an illness that may be causing the headaches, such as:

  • Fever or abnormalities in breathing, pulse, or blood pressure
  • Infection
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Changes in personality, inappropriate behavior
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Excessive fatigue, wanting to sleep all of the time
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness, numbness, or tingling
  • Speech difficulties
  • Balance problems, falling
  • Dizziness
  • Vision changes (blurry vision, double vision, blind spots)

Neurological tests focus on ruling out diseases of the brain or nerves that may also cause headaches and migraines, such as epilepsy or multiple sclerosis. Some of the tests may also look for a physical or structural abnormality in the brain that may cause your headache, such as:

  • Tumor
  • Abscess (an infection of the brain)
  • Hemorrhage (bleeding within the brain)
  • Bacterial or viral meningitis (an infection or inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord)
  • Pseudotumor cerebri (increased intracranial pressure)
  • Hydrocephalus (abnormal build-up of fluid in the brain)
  • Infection of the brain such as meningitis or Lyme disease
  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain)
  • Blood clots
  • Head trauma
  • Sinus blockage or disease
  • Blood vessel abnormalities
  • Injuries
  • Aneurysm (a "bubble" in the wall of a blood vessel that can leak or rupture)

Psychological Evaluation for Diagnosing Headaches

An interview with a psychologist is not a routine part of a headache evaluation, but it may be done to identify stress factors triggering your headaches. You may be asked to complete a computerized questionnaire to provide more in-depth information to the doctor.

After evaluating the results of the headache history and physical, neurological, and psychological exams, your doctor should be able to determine the type of headache you have, whether a serious problem is present, and whether additional tests are needed. Possible additional tests you may be given include diagnostic tests.

Tests for Diagnosing Headaches

Additional tests may be needed to look for other medical conditions that may be causing your headaches or migraines. These tests are listed below. Keep in mind that most of these laboratory tests are not helpful in diagnosing migraine, cluster, or tension headaches.

  • Blood Chemistry and Urinalysis. These tests may determine many medical conditions, including diabetes, thyroid problems, and infections, which can cause headaches.
  • CT Scan. This is a test in which X-rays and computers are used to produce an image of a cross-section of the body. A CT scan of the head may be recommended to rule out other conditions if you are getting daily or almost daily headaches.
  • MRI. This test produces very clear pictures, or images, of the brain without the use of X-rays. MRI uses a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer to produce these images. A MRI may be recommended if you are getting daily or almost daily headaches. It may also be recommended if a CT scan does not show definitive results. In addition, a MRI scan is used to evaluate certain parts of the brain that are not as easily viewed with CT scans, such as the spine at the level of the neck and the back portion of the brain.
  • Sinus X-Ray. Although the CT scan and MRI provide more details, your doctor may use this test if your symptoms seem to indicate sinus problems.
  • EEG. Electroencephalogram is not a standard part of a headache evaluation, but may be performed if seizures occur with the headaches.
  • Eye Exam. An eye pressure test performed by an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) will rule out glaucoma or pressure on the optic nerve as a cause of headaches.
  • Spinal Tap. A spinal tap is the removal of spinal fluid from the spinal canal (located in the back). This procedure is performed to look for conditions such as infections of the brain or spinal cord. The test can itself cause a temporary headache.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood, MD on February 24, 2013
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