3 Signs Your Migraine Is a Serious Health Problem

Jul 23, 2018 at 2:55 p.m. ET
Woman rubbing forehead
Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images.

Migraines are hands down one of the worst types of pain known to humankind. And if you've had one before, you're likely nodding your head and exclaiming at your screen, "Amen!"

Saying migraines are "just a headache" is like saying Christina Aguilera is "just a singer." But the thing is, although migraines are horribly painful, the majority of the time, they aren't indicative of any larger health problem, Dr. Paul Michael, an oncologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, a practice within the US Oncology Network, tells SheKnows.

Still, while you're laying in a dark room feeling like your head is about to explode, it's totally natural to wonder if your headache is really something worse. And it can definitely be hard to tell when there's a problem, especially when you're in pain. 

Michael has a few tips to help you tell the difference between horrible head-splitting pain and horrible head-splitting pain that requires medical attention.

More: 11 Women Speak Up: What I Wish People Understood About Migraine

When is your migraine just a migraine?

A lot of people automatically think "brain cancer" when they get bad head pain, but Michael says migraines are not a typical symptom of a brain tumor, nor is there any research linking migraines to an increased risk of any cancer. (But, he says, people prone to migraines do have a higher risk of heart disease as they age, so you should stay on top of your checkups.)

If your headache always happens soon after certain activities, such as eating a big meal, drinking wine, working on the computer or watching TV for long periods of time; coincides with your menstrual cycle; or if it goes away after a few hours, then it's most likely nothing to worry about, Michael says.

More: 8 Foods That Just Might Trigger a Migraine

When is your migraine possibly something worse?

There are three red flags to look for when determining if your migraine is more than a migraine, Michael says.

  1. Does the pain wake you up in the middle of the night? If you feel pain so severe it wakes you from sleep, then the pressure from lying down could mean that there is a tumor or something else serious.
  2. Is the pain chronic? Pain that lasts day and night without stopping is worrisome, particularly when it goes on longer than three days.
  3. Does it cause any mental or physical changes? A headache that results in noticeable personality changes (such as heightened anxiety or aggression) or physical changes (such as weakness in your arms or legs) is a serious problem.

More: Every Single Way Migraine Has Impacted My Life

Any of these three signs would necessitate an immediate call to your doctor's office. Michael adds that if you are vomiting uncontrollably, lose vision suddenly or the pain suddenly gets super intense, then you should skip the phone call and go straight to the emergency room.

A version of this article was originally published in March 2016.

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