Should You Have an Imaging Test to Diagnose Your Headaches?

 A man prepares to get some answers about his persistent headaches.
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Unexplained chronic headaches or migraines can disrupt your life, making it hard to work or enjoy the activities you love. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing your pain — so you can get back to life is our priority. And that starts with the best diagnostic process and tools.

But before deciding on any costly diagnostic tests, take a deep breath. While imaging tests can be a great tool, they can also be expensive — and may not deliver the right answers you need.

Before deciding if an imaging test is right for you, we encourage you to learn more about common headache causes and triggers and talk about them with your doctor. Simply gaining a better understanding can go a long way in helping you better manage your headaches, or even better, prevent them altogether.

Common Causes of Headaches

Chronic headaches or migraines affect over 40 million Americans every year, and occur more often in women than in men. The most common causes of headaches include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Caffeine withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep
  • Flu or infection
  • High blood pressure
  • Hormone changes
  • Muscle tension in the neck or shoulders
  • Skipping meals
  • Stress

None of these headache causes will appear on imaging tests.

Understanding these causes can help you make lifestyle changes to limit the number of headaches you experience, or avoid them altogether. And, working with your doctor to pinpoint which causes or triggers seem to most apply to you, can offer additional solutions for relief — such as highly effective preventative or as-needed prescription medications — without ever needing to incur the expense or inconvenience of further testing.

When Headaches Mean Something More

Rarely, headaches are caused by brain tumors, a traumatic brain injury or an arteriovenous malformation in the brain. While it’s true that these conditions would show up on imaging tests, other symptoms can also point to these conditions, such as:

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Dizziness
  • Memory problems
  • Personality changes
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech
  • Trouble walking or balancing
  • Vision changes
  • Weakness in your arms or legs

If you have these symptoms, it’s likely your doctor will order an imaging test of your brain; you won’t need to request one.

Imaging Test Risks

Because only rare causes of headaches appear on imaging tests, in most people, your doctor might determine that an imaging test has more possible risks than benefits.

Imaging tests like a computed tomography (CT) scan use radiation. Radiation exposure throughout your life can increase your risk of cancer, so it’s a good idea to limit radiation exposure when you can.

Imaging tests are also expensive, sometimes costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. You may choose to explore less expensive options, such as blood tests, dietary changes or exercise before paying for an imaging test.

When Imaging Tests are Appropriate

Your doctor will likely recommend an imaging test if it’s needed, but you may want to ask for an imaging test if your headaches:

  • Began after a head injury
  • Cause slurred speech or other issues
  • Happen after you exercise
  • Occur with a seizure
  • Start suddenly and severely
  • Vary from your normal headaches

Find Relief and Start Feeling Your Best

If you’re suffering from chronic headaches, we’re here to help. Our caring neurology experts at AdventHealth can help you uncover the cause of your headaches, so you can find relief. We make it easy to find relief. Schedule your appointment online here.

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