How Do You Know If A Headache Is Serious? This Is What To Look For

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There are headaches and, as any migraine sufferer will tell you, there are headaches. But headaches seem so common that, even if they're painful, most people will take an aspirin and try to move on with their day. But how do you know if a headache is serious? There's one particular kind of headache that you really should never ignore: the sudden-onset headache that may indicate a brain aneurysm. Cerebral aneurysms, as they're called, are "balloonings" of blood vessels in the brain, according to the American Stroke Association, which also points out that 1.5 to 5 percent of the American population will at one point develop a cerebral aneurysm. So it's important that we all know the difference between a tension headache, a migraine, and a headache that signifies that we need to get to a hospital STAT for brain scans and tests. I've had a brain aneurysm scare myself, and let me tell you, it is not worth waiting around.

Brain aneurysms on their own are an issue, because their expansion can put pressure on brain tissue and nerves, but it's when they burst that they can become particularly dangerous, because blood on the brain causes hemorrhages. Hemorrhages in the brain can lead to clots that damage brain cells, build-ups of fluid, and narrowing of blood vessels, so this is not a wait-and-see issue; it's one that demands you get it seen now. So what are the signs that a headache might signal something's wrong in your brain's blood vessels?

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According to a survey in early 2018, up to 90 percent of Americans don't know what a brain aneurysm is or what it takes to recognize one. The important thing to know here is that many people may have a small aneurysm that causes no apparent problems because the expansion of the blood vessels is minuscule or doesn't impact any brain tissue. But if it grows, and starts to apply pressure, that's when the headaches can come in.

There are two types of aneurysm headache that should cause concern. One, for unruptured aneurysms, is localized in the head, because it's a single area experiencing the weight of the ballooned vein. These can be pretty hard to distinguish from migraine headaches, which can also cause aches on one side of the head. These headaches can emerge slowly and build to serious pain, and come and go over an extended period of days or weeks as the aneurysm shifts and blood flow alters. If you're having one of these headaches, along with symptoms like dilated pupils, weakness or difficulty speaking, says the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, it may be a signal that you have a large unruptured aneurysm, and you need to get to a doctor.

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The really serious kind, however, is the sudden, excruciating headache, which happens when the aneurysm bursts. A brain aneurysm's rupture, explains the National Health Service, "has been likened to being hit on the head, resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before." This agony is the brain reacting to the force of the vein's expulsion of blood, and it can cause some other side effects, including seizures, double vision, nausea, sudden sensitivity to light, and unconsciousness. If a headache could reasonably be described as the worst headache of your life, it's worth taking to the doctor.

This type of headache is a very serious condition that needs emergency medical attention, because it's classified as life-threatening. The Brain Aneurysm Foundation estimates that 40 percent of all people who experience them do not survive, and that over 60 percent of those who do have "serious neurological deficits" because of the damage of the blood. And, the Brain Aneurysm Foundation reports, women are one and a half times more likely to experience an aneurysm than men.

If you're having headaches that you think may be signals that you have a brain aneurysm, ruptured or not, don't wait around and see what happens. It's often easy for doctors to see an aneurysm on a CT scan, a specialized X-ray of the brain, so go get help, particularly if you have no family history of migraines and don't have any idea where your head pain is coming from.