Everything You Need to Know About Headache Specialists

Many of us get headaches once in a while. They often go away on their own or with a couple of pain relievers. But some people get them often or for a long time or feel a lot of pain -- and nothing seems to work. If you’re one of them, it may be worthwhile to see a headache specialist.

Why a Specialist?

Sometimes, home remedies and recommendations from your regular doctor may not be enough to relieve your headaches. You may want to consider seeing someone with extra expertise if you:

  • Have headaches so bad that they interfere with your job, school, or family life
  • Take aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other over-the-counter meds often
  • Notice your headaches are getting worse
  • Worry that you take too much medication
  • Have gone to the ER because of your headache
  • Had more than 15 headaches in the past month

Types of Experts

The only doctors who can legally call themselves headache specialists are those certified in headache medicine from the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties. But this group is relatively small. Even without the certification, several types of doctors can have extra training in treating headaches. Some of them may have finished fellowships in headache medicine.

Neurosurgeons

They’re expects on disorders in the brain, nerves, and spinal cord. Headaches involve both your brain and your nervous system, so neurosurgeons often are the go-to specialists for all types of headaches and migraines.

For one thing, neurosurgeons can do surgical procedures that your family doctor or internist can’t. You usually would have an operation only if medications have failed to help. Neurosurgeons can do:

Deep brain stimulation. Wires (electrodes) inserted inside your brain relay electrical pulses to target stubborn pain.

Peripheral nerve stimulation. Electrodes placed on your nerves or under your skin in the area where you’re in pain.

Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctors

If your headache is related to sinus issues, ENTs, aka otolaryngologists, may be worthwhile to consult. Some migraines can cause ringing in your ears or sinus pressure. A type of migraine called vestibular migraine can make you dizzy. This sort of vertigo can stem from problems in your inner ear.

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An ENT doctor may help you find out the cause of your headaches.

Eye Doctors

Ophthalmologists may help with a serious condition called ocular migraines. About 1 in 4 people with migraine get auras, which can affect your vision. Another type, called retinal migraines, can leave you temporarily blinded. An eye doctor can help prevent damage to your vision and look for underlying issues.

OB/GYNs

Obstetricians and gynecologists focus on pregnancy, childbirth, and other women’s reproductive health issues. Women get migraines three times as often as men do. Sometimes, they can stem from changes in estrogen and other hormone levels during menstrual cycles or pregnancies.

For menstrual migraines, your doctor may prescribe a triptan, a class of drugs that prevent a migraine or stop one that’s already started.

Other Clinicians

The pool of doctors with deep experience and expertise in migraines and headaches is far outsized by the number of people with severe cases. To help plug the shortage, the National Headache Foundation revived its program to recognize all types of clinicians for their abilities in treating the condition.

The foundation’s Certificate for Added Qualifications in Headache Medicine exam is given to MDs, DOs, (osteopathic doctors) and:

  • Advanced nurse practitioners
  • Physician assistants
  • Dentists
  • Clinical psychologists

How to Find a Specialist

Visit the American Migraine Foundation or the National Headache Foundation websites to search for a certified headache specialist near you. The Migraine Research Foundation lists headache specialists in every state.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 11, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

The Migraine Trust: “Headache.”

American Migraine Foundation: “What Is a Headache Specialist? Do I Need One? And How Do I Find One?”  “Migraine in the Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic,” “Understanding Ocular Migraine,” “Menstrual Migraine.”

University of Rochester Medical Center Neurology: “Conditions We Treat.”

University of Utah Health: “What Is a Neurologist?”

UCLA Health: “Headaches.”

Mayo Clinic: “Chronic Daily Headaches.”

The American Academy of Family Physicians: “Family Physicians Can Help Their Migraine Patients Find Relief.”

Migraine Research Foundation: “Migraine Is a Women’s Health Issue.”

National Headache Foundation: “Certification of Added Qualification in Headache Medicine – Why Now?”

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