What If That Headache Is A Stroke Instead?

Many health conditions can trigger a headache, but what if that headache is a stroke instead?

How could you know? Could your headache be a sign of a stroke, or something else?

One of my patients had a history of allergies and sinus headaches, but one morning she woke up with pain in her face as well.  She blamed it on her sinuses, but it didn’t get better as the morning went by.

In fact, her face hurt so much and was so tender that she couldn’t even brush her teeth. So, her husband called their doctor and he instructed them to come to his office right away.

As it turned out, she had a serious inflammation of the arteries in her face (called “giant cell arteritis“).

Had she waited, the doctor told her, she might have had a stroke.

Her story serves as a warning that sometimes a headache is more than just a headache. In fact, a headache cannot only be an early warning sign of stroke but for other potentially harmful health conditions such as an infection or high blood pressure.

And it it’s not only seniors who should take this pain seriously.

A large study recently published in the journal Stroke found that the rate of stroke in pregnant women and new mothers increased by about 54% over a 12-year period, largely due to high blood pressure during pregnancy.

When To Call Your Doctor

When should you see your doctor about a headache?

The American Headache Society, recommends remembering the word SNOOP during the assessment of your pain. Here’s what the letters stand for:

S – Systemic Symptoms 

  • In addition to a headache, you feel symptoms in other parts of your body. This could be a fever, loss of appetite, or weight loss.
  • S also stands for secondary risk factors.

For instance, if your headache is in addition to a cancer diagnosis, you should call your doctor immediately.

N – Neurologic Symptoms 

  • These include confusion, blurry vision, personality changes, weakness on one side of the body, numbness, or sharp facial pain.

O – Onset

  • This means that a headache happens suddenly, with no warning. These are sometimes called “thunderclap” headaches. They are a result of bleeding in the brain.

O – Older

  • If you are older than 50 and experience a new or a progressive headache, call your doctor.

This could indicate a giant cell arteritis or a brain tumor.

P – Progression

  • What If That Headache Is A Stroke Instead-giant cellIf a headache is significantly different than your others, if they are happening more often or if it feels like the worst headache you’ve ever had, there is cause for concern.

Other serious causes of headaches may include:

Stiff neck, fever, and rash

  • This might indicate meningitis or other infections.

Elevated blood pressure

This can also cause headaches and can occur even if you’ve never been diagnosed with high blood pressure, or if you have been diagnosed and your blood pressure gets out of control.

Is It a Stroke?

  • When the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain is interrupted (for various reasons), a stroke occurs.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one sign of stroke is a sudden severe headache with no obvious cause.

Other symptoms are:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion.
  • Sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech.
  • Sudden difficulty seeing from one or both eyes.
  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance, or difficulty walking.

The National Stroke Association suggests remembering FAST— a quick test to determine if someone should seek help for a stroke.

What If That Headache Is A Stroke Instead-FAST

F – Face. Does your face droop when you smile?

A – ArmDoes one arm drift downward if you try to raise both arms?

S – Speech. Does your speech sound slurred?

T – Time. If you or someone else has these signs, call 911.

Take Action for Serious, Sudden Headaches

bottom line


Although most headaches are not serious and will go away on their own, it’s important to recognize when headache pain could be a sign of a larger issue.

If your headache is bad, new, or changing, get to the emergency room or doctor’s office right away.


Learn More:

Having A Stroke? How Can You Tell And What Can You Do About It?

A Transient Ischemic Attack: Warning Signs Of A Mini-Stroke

A Few “Not So Innocent” Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

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