Decision Assist

Headache specialist


The purpose of this tool is to help you decide whether or not to see a headache specialist. When making a decision like this, you must balance:

This tool is not a substitute for professional medical care and advice. Ask your regular doctor to help you decide whether it is worth seeing a specialist. There is usually no exact "right" or "wrong" answer.

Your physician may make certain recommendations to you. However, the final decision about whether to see a specialist rests with you.

What does the specialist do?

A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. Serious causes of headaches are extremely rare. Most people with headaches can feel much better if they make lifestyle changes, learn ways to relax, and occasionally take medications.


Treat your symptoms seriously. Your health care provider will obtain your medical history and perform an examination of your head, eyes, ears, nose, throat, neck, and nervous system.

The diagnosis is usually based on your history of symptoms; however, a headache specialist may perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the headache. These tests include:

Click the icon to see different types of headaches.

Key points

You should probably see a headache specialist when:

Sometimes you can relieve a headache by resting with your eyes closed and head supported.

Relaxation techniques can help. A massage or heat applied to the back of the upper neck may relieve tension headaches:

Several medicines may help treat headaches. Often, your primary care doctor can prescribe many of these. The following medications may help:

Tension-type headache
Click the icon to see an example of a tension headache.

If you get frequent headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication to prevent headaches before they occur. Examples include:

How much time this decision tool will take

What this tool will provide

Review Date: 9/12/2010
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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  • Detsky ME, McDonald DR, et al. Does this patient with headache have a migraine or need neuroimaging? JAMA. 2006;296(10): 1274-83.
  • Ebell MH. Diagnosis of migraine headache. Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(12): 2087-8.
  • Fumal A, Schoenen J. Tension-type headache: current research and clinical management. Lancet Neurol. 2008;7(1): 70-83.
  • Silberstein SD, Young WB. Headache and facila pain. Goetz CG, ed. Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: WB Saunders; 2007:chap 53.
  • Wilson JF. In the clinic. Migraine. Ann Intern Med. 2007;147(9): ITC11-1-ITC11-16.
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