Family Health Guide

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Headaches: Diagnosis

There’s no single test available to diagnose tension or migraine headaches. That may explain why more than 29 million Americans experience migraines, yet only about 48 percent who have the symptoms receive a proper diagnosis, according to an American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study. To help your doctor make the right diagnosis, keep a headache diary for at least a month to track the frequency of your headaches, their intensity, when they occur and whether they interfere with daily activities. Do they fall into a pattern? Are they related to your period? (You can usually tell after tracking three menstrual cycles, says Dr. Diamond.) Use the headache diary on the National Headache Foundation website or the American Headache Society website.

Your doctor should ask about your symptoms, perform a physical exam and possibly order tests to rule out underlying medical conditions or diseases. Dr. Diamond orders a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of the head to find out what might be causing the headache. In about 3 to 4 percent of the population, a tumor or aneurysm may be to blame. That’s especially important if you’re over 40 and experiencing headaches for the first time. She also checks patients for anemia and thyroid problems, because both disorders can bring on headaches.