When Headaches Get Serious

There are headaches, and then there are headaches. You know, the ones that feel like you’re dying, or make you wish you were dead. The ones that make you worry that something is seriously wrong. The reality is that most headaches are harmless, no matter how bad they may feel. However, there are some types of headaches that are a bit more serious and debilitating.

Read on for their signs and symptoms.

Migraine Headaches

Migraines are more common in women, but men can also get them. The age of onset is usually late adolescence, often after puberty; however, it is also possible to develop migraines later in life.

Migraine headaches can be extremely painful and debilitating, but they are not actually life-threatening.


Migraines headaches are characterized by a sharp pulsating or throbbing pain on one of both sides of the head that seems to originate over or behind the one or both eyes. The headache can also cause sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision and lightheadedness.

The pain of a migraine headache can last several hours, and even several days. Some people also experience an early warning, called an aura, 20 minutes to an hour before a migraine starts. The aura could include visual disruptions, brain fog, and a pins and needles feeling.

When to See a Doctor

Migraines often have specific triggers such as hormone fluctuations or specific foods. See your doctor if you notice that your migraines are occurring without the usual triggers; or, if they have become more intense, more frequent, or if they last longer than usual – these could all be a sign of a more serious problem.

Brain Tumor Headaches

While some brain tumors are more common in the elderly, they can occur in people of all ages and genders.

Brain tumor-related headaches can be subtle or debilitating; however, unlike the migraine, they can also be life-threatening.


The thing to remember about tumor-related headaches is that they are often not the first symptom of the tumor. In fact, it’s likely that someone with a tumor could experience seizures, visual, hearing or speech disturbances, memory or cognitive problems, and limb weakness long before they start having headaches.

Once the headaches start, it’s not unusual for them start off as mild, dull and throbbing, and get progressively worse, more frequent, and longer-lasting as the tumor grows. Movement could make the headache worse, as could coughing or sneezing. Tumor-related headaches could occur without any apparent cause, such as a head injury, a cold or flu, or a migraine-type trigger.

When to See a Doctor

Tumors have the potential to be very serious and need immediate attention. See your doctor if you notice that you are having frequent headaches without any specific cause that are getting worse over time and do not respond to the usual treatments – especially if you notice changes in your vision, hearing, or cognitive function. If you have a tumor, your doctor will schedule an appointment with a brain surgeon to determine the next course of action.

Aneurysm Headaches

Aneurysms are weak spots in the walls of your arteries. Aneurysms can occur anywhere in the body, but the brain is a common location. Aneurysms can affect people of all ages and genders.

The headache associated with an aneurysm can be blinding and debilitating; aneurysms are also extremely dangerous and life-threatening, because it’s possible to bleed to death if they rupture.


The headache symptoms will depend on whether the aneurysm is unruptured, has ruptured completely, or is leaking.

During the unruptured stage the walls of the blood vessel are swelling and causing pressure on the surrounding brain tissue. You might not feel any pain at all unless the aneurysm expands enough to significantly impact the surrounding nerves and brain tissue. If you do have a headache, it could start as pain above or behind one eye, similar to a migraine; however, the pupil in that eye might also be dilated with a drooping eyelid. You might also experience migraine-like vision disturbances, as well as numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of your face.

If the aneurysm starts leaking or ruptures, you will experience a sudden, severe headache–some people have described an aneurysm headache as the worst headache of their lives. A leaking aneurysm could last for days before it finally ruptures. Once it ruptures, you could also experience nausea and vomiting, seizures, sensitivity to light, and unconsciousness.

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor immediately if you experience migraine-like headaches that don’t respond to the usual migraine treatments. Go to the emergency room immediately if you experience a sudden onset of severe headache pain, especially if you can say it’s the worst headache of your life.

This article is featured on behalf of Jenna Brown.

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