Family Medicine

  • Headache

    Note: This information is for preceptors only. Students are asked to not access this information and to respect this restriction as an honor code issue.

    Learning Objectives:

    • Classify headaches as primary (migraine, tension, cluster, or miscellaneous) or secondary.
    • Identify potential red-flag symptoms.
    • Know basic treatment modalities for migraine, tension, and cluster headaches.

    Suggested Reading:

    Clinch CR. Evaluation of Acute Headaches in Adults, American Family Physician, 2001;63:685-692.

    Gamboa, S. Headache (Chapter 45). In: Essentials of Family Medicine, 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2012, 533-542. Note: This is the required text for the FM Preceptorship.

    Case 1: 

    Sara is a 14-year-old white female in 9th grade who comes to see you because of headaches and nausea occurring about once per month just prior to her menses. These are throbbing in nature and usually most prominent in the left frontal region. She often feels a stabbing type pain behind the left eye. There are no aura-like symptoms, but she has photophobia. When she gets these headaches, she often needs to leave school. She finds that sleeping in a dark quiet room helps. She has tried Tylenol 325 mg or Ibuprofen 200 mg without success. On further questioning, you find that she feels that she doesn’t have many friends at school and that she is not involved in school activities. She denies smoking and alcohol use. PE is unremarkable.

    Question 1: What type of headache do you think this is? What symptoms support this diagnosis?

    This patient has symptoms typical for migraine headache without aura associated with the menses. It is unilateral, severe, throbbing, associated with nausea and photophobia. They are also often associated with phonophobia and are exacerbated by activity. The physician should be alert to the potential for secondary gain in this patient (missing school due to headache) and to the possibility of depression (patient feels she does not have many friends at school and is not involved in school activities).

    Question 2: What suggestions would you make regarding treatment?

    Since these headaches are only occurring once per month, it is very reasonable to try abortive therapy. However, the patient has been receiving suboptimal doses of analgesics. She should be encouraged to try at least 650 – 1000 mg of Acetaminophen every 4 – 6 hours or 600-800 mg of Ibuprofen every 6 – 8 hours at the first sign of a headache. Women with menstrual migraines often respond very well to the prostaglandin-blocking effects of NSAIDs. Other appropriate choices would include triptans or migraine-specific drugs like ergotamines, midrin, etc.

    Question 3: Does this patient have any "red flag" symptoms? What symptoms, if they occurred, would raise the possibility of a more serious or life-threatening condition?

    This patient does not have any red flag symptoms.


     Diagnosis Red Flags - Headache is:
    Subarachnoid hemorrhage Sudden, explosive, severe ("worst headache of my life")
    Subdural hematoma Onset hours to weeks after trauma
    Intercranial mass New onset after age 50, constant, prevents sleep, progressively worsening, focal neurologic signs, loss of consciousness, change in mental status, papilledema.
    Temporal Arteritis New onset ? 50 years of age, local tenderness, absence of temporal pulse, jaw claudication
    Meningitis/encephalitis Fever or stiff neck, altered mental status, otitis, dental abscesses, targeted physical findings.
    Accelerated hypertension With abnormal physical signs - e.g. focal neurologic deficits, high blood pressure [> 200 mm Hg systolic or >120 mm Hg diastolic]
    Ruptured aneurysm Onset during exercise
    Environmental exposure Acquaintances or family members with similar onset of HA.
    Adapted from Chapter 45, Headache: Essentials of Family Medicine, 6th ed. Philadelphia PA: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2012, 533-542.

    Question 4: If her headaches became more frequent, how might you consider preventing them? Discuss decision to begin prophylaxis. (>2 headaches/week, significant disability,failure/contraindication of other therapies, pt preference, cost, comorbidities)

    • Some patients note improvement with wellness programs (good nutrition, sleep, exercise), relaxation training, cognitive therapy, biofeedback.
    • Avoid triggers (alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food additives like MSG or aspartame, sleep disruption, hormone changes, odors, lights, chocolate, nuts, beans, dairy, nitrites in meats, tyramine in smoked fish, aged cheese, red wine, sulfites in white wine).
    • Frequently used migraine prophylactic agents include SSRI’s, tricyclic antidepressants β-blockers, calcium channel blockers, valproic acid, gabapentin, topiramate.

    Case 2: 

    Mike is a 29 year old white male businessman who comes in with a history of headaches occurring 2 to 3 times each week for the past several months. He has tried a variety of over-the-counter agents including Tylenol 650 mg every 4 hours, Ibuprofen 800 mg every 4-6 hours, and Naprosyn 500 mg twice a day with some success. However, he feels his headaches have increased in intensity since beginning his new job several months ago. He describes these as bilateral and constant, like a tight band around the head. There is no associated blurry or double vision, photo - or phonophobia, or other neurologic symptoms. Headaches are exacerbated by deadlines at work. They do not awaken him from sleep. He drinks 3-4 cups of coffee daily, does not smoke, and has 2 beers on the weekend. He does not exercise.

    Question 1: What type of headache do you think this is? What symptoms support your diagnosis?

    This case typifies tension headaches, possibly exacerbated by regular use of nonsteroidal agents. Tension headaches are characterized by bilaterality, tightness, constant nature, and radiation into neck and shoulders. They can last up to days at a time. It sounds as though Mike’s job is quite stressful and often tension headaches are exacerbated by stress.

    Question 2: What suggestions would you make regarding treatment?

    Since these headaches are occurring 2-3 times per week and he has been using adequate doses of pain medications, lifestyle modification would be an appropriate first step. He should be encouraged to decrease the amount of over-the-counter analgesics he has been using to 2 or 3 doses no more than twice each week, decrease the amount of coffee to no more than 2 cups per day, and begin a regular exercise routine to help alleviate stress. Massage therapy, biofeedback, acupuncture, nutritional supplements, and relaxation techniques are often useful. Ergonomic evaluations of workstation can also benefit patients. It does not sound as though he has problems with other substance abuse such as tobacco or alcohol, but these should be explored with every patient. He should be seen back in 3-4 weeks to see if there has been any change in the character of the headaches once he has tried these measures. In the event that he develops a severe headache, it would be acceptable to treat with a combination analgesic. More frequent headaches may be amenable to prophylactic treatment with amitriptyline, mirtazapine, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy.