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Among the most common reasons that pts seek medical attention; can be either primary or secondary (Table 51-1). First step—distinguish serious from benign etiologies. Symptoms that raise suspicion for a serious cause are listed in Table 51-2. Intensity of head pain rarely has diagnostic value; most pts who present with worst headache of their lives have migraine. Headache location can suggest involvement of local structures (temporal pain in giant cell arteritis, facial pain in sinusitis). Ruptured aneurysm (instant onset), cluster headache (peak over 3–5 min), and migraine (pain increases over minutes to hours) differ in time to peak intensity. Provocation by environmental factors suggests a benign cause.

Complete neurologic examination is important in evaluation of headache. If examination is abnormal or if serious underlying cause is suspected, an imaging study (CT or MRI) is indicated as a first step. Lumbar puncture (LP) is required when meningitis (stiff neck, fever) or subarachnoid hemorrhage (following negative imaging) is a possibility. The psychological state of the pt should also be evaluated because a relationship exists between pain and depression.

TABLE 51-1Common Causes of Headache
TABLE 51-2Headache Symptoms That Suggest a Serious Underlying Disorder


A benign, episodic syndrome of headache associated with other symptoms of neurologic dysfunction in varying admixtures. Second to tension-type as most common cause of headache; afflicts ∼15% of women and 6% of men annually. Diagnostic criteria are listed in Table 51-3. Onset usually in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood; however, initial attack may occur at any age. Family history is often present. Women may have increased sensitivity to attacks during menstrual cycle. Classic triad: premonitory visual (scotoma or scintillations), sensory, or motor symptoms; unilateral throbbing headache; and nausea and vomiting. Most pts do not have visual aura or other premonitory symptoms. Photophobia and phonophobia are common. Vertigo may occur. Focal neurologic disturbances without headache or vomiting (migraine equivalents) may also occur. An attack lasting 4–72 h is typical, as is ...

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