Awful Headaches? Signs of a More Serious Problem

Headaches can be a real pain, and depending on the severity, can quickly put an end to your otherwise productive day. Sure, there may be methods to successfully treat headaches, but it’s also possible your headache is a sign of something more serious. While causes vary, the National Headache Foundation divides headaches in two basic categories: primary/benign, which includes migraines; and secondary headaches, which are caused organically.

Whether you experience headaches on a daily basis or just once in a while, there’s no denying the pain they can cause. If you suffer from headaches, don’t dismiss your pain as just another routine part of everyday life. Here are four signs a headache could mean something more serious.

1. Vomiting and nausea

crisis ahead warning sign

Headaches could be a sign of a serious problem. | iStock.com

Before you race straight to the emergency room thinking you have a brain tumor, know that the likelihood of cancer is low. Dr. Gene Barnett, director of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center, tells CNN most cases will be “a stress headache or a migraine or sinusitis or something else benign.” Still, about 50% of brain tumor patients experience headaches related to their tumor, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. Common features of headaches in patients with brain tumors include steady pain that is worse in the morning, persistent, non-migraine headaches, and vomiting or nausea.

2. A quick onset of pain

Man feeling depressed and unwell

Bleeding in the brain could trigger headaches. | iStock.com

An aneurysm is a weak area in a blood vessel that enlarges, resulting in a balloon-like effect. ABC News says smoking, hypertension, being female, or having a family history are all chronic risk factors for aneurysms, and headaches could be a sign of one. According to The Huffington Post, headaches that come on really fast, like an explosion out of nowhere, could be a sign of bleeding in the brain.

3. Muscle weakness or numbness in a limb

Woman with shoe sitting outdoors and massaging ankle

Beware if your headaches are accompanied by muscle pain. | iStock.com/DragonImages

Prevention recommends seeking medical advice when a headache is associated with muscle weakness or numbness, personality changes, or vision changes, as these may be a sign of a stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, this condition is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Furthermore, they say, “A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts (or ruptures). When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood (and oxygen) it needs, so it and brain cells die.” Strokes are serious, so definitely see your physician if you notice any of the above symptoms with your headache.

4. Stiff neck and fever

man holding neck in pain

Man holding his neck in agony. | iStock.com

According to Health, a stiff neck and fever could signal meningitis, a swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis, which can quickly become critical, is typically caused by bacteria or viruses, but could also be a result of injury, cancer, or certain drugs. If a stiff neck and fever accompany a headache, make an appointment with your doctor immediately.