When it's more than a headache

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WE OFTEN ASSUME that headaches are "normal." We think we suffer from sinus headaches. Or tension headaches. Or menstrual headaches. But no matter what we call them, some headaches just can't be tamed with OTC medications. That may be because they're not ordinary headaches but disabling migraines, and they require professional diagnosis and treatment before they can be brought under control.

So how do you know if your headaches are migraines? Read on for ways to identify and seek treatment for your head pain.

The Danger of Self-Diagnosis
Many people never seek medical help for their headaches because they assume they aren't migraines. One study of 30 people with suspected sinus headaches found that 29 actually had migraines. Some women only get a migraine when they have their period, so they assume it's just part of their normal cycle. Even headaches triggered by weather changes may be migraines, notes Lisa K. Mannix, MD, a neurologist and spokesperson for the National Headache Foundation. Why does it matter? Because the right diagnosis can bring better pain relief. A migraine-specific prescription medication can quickly relieve headache pain no matter what the cause, and it can relieve associated symptoms such as nausea and sensitivity to light.

MYTH: Migraines are always severe, cause auras, and make you nauseous
FACT: Different people respond differently to migraines

Most migraines do cause moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing pain, usually on one side of the head, but not all of them fit that description. The pain, which can last as long as 3 days, is often (but not always) accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light or sound. And only about 15% of migraines are preceded by visual disturbances (aka auras) such as wavy lines, dots, flashing lights, or blind spots. In short, migraine symptoms can vary widely from person to person.

For more information about migraines and other kinds of headaches, visit the National Headache Foundation's Web site at www.headaches.org. Or call toll-free (888)NHF-5552(643-5552).

Your Doctor Discussion Guide
Make a list of everything you want to discuss, and take it along to your appointment. Be sure to include information from your headache diary (see "Keep a Headache Diary" below) so your doctor can make the right diagnosis and offer you the treatment you need.

Be sure to show your doctor a complete list of any prescription medications, dietary supplements, and OTC medications you're currently taking.

Keep a Headache Diary
For 2 months, keep track of your headaches in a notebook or on a calendar, then take your diary to your doctor. You may start to see patterns in the timing of your headaches and what might trigger them.

HERE'S WHAT TO RECORD:

• The day(s) you get a headache and how long each one lasts

• Anything you think could have set off the headache: skipped meals, certain foods, a bad day at work, sleep disruptions. If you're a woman, also note the days you have your period, since hormones can play a role in migraines.

• The severity of the headache

• What medication(s) you took for the headache, the dosage, when you took it, and how well it worked

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