There are numerous causes of headache, however, the pressing question in the ED is,
Is this a primary or SECONDARY headache?
- Primary headaches [e.g. tension & migraine}, maybe painful and need analgesia but don’t require emergency investigation.
- Secondary headaches, often but not always have serious underlying causes [e.g. SAH, central venous thrombosis] requiring emergent investigation and treatment
Red Flags [NICE] – serious secondary headaches
New severe or unexpected headache:
- Sudden-onset severe headache reaching maximum intensity within 5 minutes may indicate serious causes such as intracranial haemorrhage, venous sinus thrombosis, hypertensive encephalopathy and vertebral artery dissection.
- New onset headache in a person aged over 50 years may indicate a serious cause such as giant cell arteritis or space occupying lesion.
Progressive or persistent headache or headache that has changed dramatically:
- Consider serious causes such as mass lesion or subdural haematoma
Associated features such as:
- Fever, impaired consciousness, seizure, neck pain/stiffness or photophobia — consider serious causes such as meningitis and encephalitis.
- Papilloedema — consider space occupying lesions, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis and benign intracranial hypertension.
- New-onset neurological deficit, change in personality and new-onset cognitive dysfunction — consider serious causes such as a cerebrovascular event, malignancy or other space occupying lesions such as subacute or chronic subdural hematoma.
- Atypical aura (duration greater than 1 hour, or including motor weakness) or aura occurring for the first time in a patient during use of combined oral contraceptives — consider serious causes such as cerebrovascular event.
- Dizziness — consider serious causes such as ischaemic or haemorrhagic stroke.
- Visual disturbance — can be associated with migraine but also with serious causes such as acute closure glaucoma and temporal arteritis.
- Vomiting — can associated with migraine but may also be associated with a serious cause of headache such as mass lesion, brain abscess, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Contacts with similar symptoms
- Consider serious causes such as carbon monoxide poisoning if household contacts have similar symptoms.
Precipitating factors such as:
- Preceding head trauma(usually within the past 3 months) — consider serious causes such as subacute or chronic subdural hematoma.
- Headache triggered by a Valsalva manoeuvre (such as coughing, sneezing, bending or exertion [physical or sexual]) — consider serious causes such as Chiari 1 malformation or a posterior fossa lesion.
- Headache that worsens on standing — consider a CSF leak.
- Headache that worsens on lying down — consider a space-occupying lesion or cerebral venous sinus thrombosis.
Comorbidities such as:
- Compromised immunity (for example due to HIV or immunosuppressive drugs) — consider serious causes such as cerebral infection or malignancy.
- Current or past malignancy — consider serious causes such as cerebral metastases.
- Current or recent pregnancy — consider serious causes such as pre-eclampsia, central venous thrombosis.
What to do?
Due to the number and variety of diagnoses there is no one-size-fits-all plan. You must consider the likely diagnoses and tailor treatment and investigation. [senior involvement is often very helpful]
- Not everyone with a red flag needs CT/MRI
- Those that require CT/MRI some will need an emergent scan NOW and some potentially could wait for an urgent scan
- If you feel they need CT discuss your differentials with radiology – as radiology are invaluable when deciding what is the most appropriate scan (e.g. SAH vs central venous thrombosis)